By JOHN KLINE
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Political healing anyone?
Fresh off of one of the most contentious presidential elections in recent history, Goshen College students, staff and community members were invited to gather at the college’s Umble Center Wednesday morning to take part in a part-lecture, part-ceremony of reconciliation.
The event was aimed at answering two main questions: what is your political identity? and How can you better work with and understand people with different political identities than our own?
Headlining Wednesday’s talk was Karl Shelly, pastor of Assembly Mennonite Church and adjunct professor with the Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies program at the college.
In beginning his talk, Shelly first looked at the origins of the word “political”, which is derived from the Latin politicus, or polis, meaning city/state.
“In other words, politics is the concern of civil matters,” Shelly said. “It’s about how the state, how the city, how the community organizes. It’s a decision to be made about how to live together, and in a democracy, that’s a task that’s shared in various ways by the citizenry. So at its best, politics is about the improvement of peoples’ lives. At its best, it’s about coming together with your neighbors, choosing representatives, and accomplishing things together that you can’t separately.”
Moving beyond the overarching label of politics in general, Shelly then took a detour into the much more colorful and varied world of political identity.
“Your political identity comes from deciding how you will fit into this political reality,” Shelly said, “how you will engage the concerns of your community, how you can advance the societal hopes we have and how you can add your voice to the chorus of competing interests.”
One of the most common ways to differentiate one’s political identity, Shelly said, is the use of labels: libertarian, anarchist, socialist, etc. Shelly then went on to discuss the three most common labels utilized within the United States today: liberal, moderate and conservative.
“Most people in the United States can place themselves somewhere on this scale,” Shelly said, noting that a recent Gallup poll on U.S. Ideological Groups places approximately 40 percent of Americans in the conservative group, 35 percent in the moderate group, 21 percent in the liberal group, and 4 percent having no opinion.
“So there are people who engage in politics in various ways,” Shelly said. “You should consider the many different options.”
As one example of those various political ideologies and their manifestations, Shelly invited local community organizer and political activist Julia King to share a personal story illustrating her own unique take on political identity.
King began her talk by describing a recent plane trip she took where she was seated next to two women, one an older white woman, and one a middle-aged African American woman, both with political outlooks different from her own.
“Somewhere along the line the election came up. Okay, maybe I brought it up,” King joked.
The women went on to talk about the perceived failings or successes of President Obama’s first four years. They talked about greed. They talked about abortion, gay marriage and war. Things got heated, and tempers flared.
“It takes a lot of skill and patience to talk about these things without getting angry or provoking anger,” King said. “We weren’t terribly skilled.”
Then, just like that, the mood shifted. The plane hit turbulence, fear set in, and what had just moments before been a group of very dissimilar women became a tight pod of support and reassurance.
“Just like that, the political symposium was over,” King said. “So here’s the obvious moral of the story: that airplane is our country, or even our world. We are all buckled in together. Opting out is simply not an option. We may disagree, and at times we should feel morally obligated to disagree, but we still need one another.”
Also joining Shelly on stage Wednesday was Goshen College Professor of History John Roth, who provided his own unique take on political identity as it relates to his Christian faith.
Central to Roth’s outlook was the idea that one can be political without necessarily participating in the standard political process, namely the right to vote. Roth, as a rule, does not vote in presidential elections.
“The decision not to vote is part of my political identity,” Roth said. “Not voting is a reminder that my political identity is not defined primarily by what happens at the State House in Indianapolis or the White House in Washington D.C. When we spend $2 billion on elections driven by negative adds, by fear and emotion, we end up with a very skewed view of what political responsibility means.
“What if, instead, you would commit yourself to a different kind of political identity, beginning with acts of compassion and healing, focused on the frayed edges of your own local community,” he continued. “Along the way, practice the habit of looking at every person you meet as a child of God, speak and live in truth, and look for ways to participate with God in the healing of our broken world.”