I broke my television-news fast to watch the State of the Union speech last week. (I’ve been choosing to ingest news in less emotional, more balanced written form, mostly through The Week.) Early the next morning, I lay awake, processing what I’d witnessed. It wasn’t the words themselves that ultimately caught my attention. It was the divisive nature of imperfect unions.
Here are two examples. Throughout the speech, there were periodic eruptions by male voices, shouting their vociferous agreement with the president. The tone of those voices was what caught my attention. They sounded like bullying sycophants, shouting their belligerent encouragement to a schoolyard tyrant. I couldn’t help but hear echoes of “yeah, our side is winning and we’re going to crush anyone who thinks differently!”
But what happens when opposition arises? Those bullies refuse to participate—as the Republicans have done by refusing to populate House committees so that the legitimate work of congress can proceed. “We’re taking our marbles so you can’t play,” they seem to be saying.
The other “side” isn’t any better. There was a sea of white in the congress—and woe be to any “progressive” woman who didn’t wear the “uniform.” Uniforms are another feature of so many schoolyards—and the goal there is often to make everyone think and act alike. The pressure to conform is just as real, even if it’s not as overt in nature. Solidarity quickly becomes restrictive. Creative thinking is discouraged. Whoever isn’t explicitly with us must be against us.
That echoes a story from scripture. The disciples came to Jesus and told him that someone was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Because the man wasn’t part of their group, they bullied him into desisting. Jesus’ response probably shocked them. He didn’t go along with their us-vs.-them game. Instead, he insisted on widening the scope of his group. Anyone who isn’t expressly working against what he teaches is on his team. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” he says.
America’s founding fathers certainly weren’t perfect. But they desired something admirable: the formation of “a more perfect union.” They’d experienced plenty of pressure to conform. In fact, Christ probably wept copiously as generation after generation of England’s bullies insisted on religious conformity, first persecuting Catholics, then persecuting Quakers. Dressing and acting alike were paramount proof of participation in divisive unions.
Our founding fathers’ separation of church and state was an attempt to stop that persecution and form a different type of union.
Unfortunately, human nature seems inexorable. We cannot help but form imperfect unions. The problems arise when we insist that there is only one right way to be, believe, or belong. Freedom was another concept embraced by those founding fathers: freedom from the tyranny of bullies and the pressure to conform. Freedom to be God’s unique creations and find ways to work together anyway.
I’m not sure where to find hope in these challenging days. Both “sides” in America seem determined to form exclusive, imperfect unions rather than “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility…[and] promote the general welfare.” Our founding parents must also be weeping copiously as they watch (from whatever vantage point!) what so many of our leaders have done to the United States they envisioned.
However, I’m not going to give up. I’ll do my part to avoid blindly joining imperfect unions—even when it angers conforming and bullying family and friends. I’m going to take Jesus as my model and support those who seek to look beyond exclusive groups. I’ll join those who are casting out today’s demons. One relationship at a time, I will seek to bring the reign of God here on earth, where it is clearly desperately needed.
What will you do? How will you respond to the pressure to bully or conform?