Alisa Harris: Raised Right

I’m a pastor in Washington, D.C. The job is not at all what I supposed it would be. When I lived outside of the beltway and looked in, I saw a group of power-hungry, egomaniac talking heads, yelling at television cameras or rabid crowds.

I didn’t expect what I encountered—a group of idealistic individuals, who love God and love their neighbors. They have allowed their dreams of what the world ought to be seep into what they do each day. They work for nonprofits (or as they say around here, NGOs, non-governmental organizations). They lobby for the environment, lead with teachers unions, and work on the Hill. I don’t serve one of those congregations where the superstar politicians go (there are those churches), but I serve the one where people might be hanging out with a guest at Miriam’s Kitchen on one day and affecting policy on the next.

Of course, we have a thread of ego-driven power-mongering in all of us as well. We are a church, after all. But for the most part, after pastoring this congregation, I’ve learned a bit more about day-to-day politics and the people who are rightly known as “civil servants.”

I had a chance to think about this a lot this weekend. Not only was it the 10th anniversary of September 11, but I’m also participating in the Patheos Book Club Round Table discussion on Alisa Harris’ book, Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics. I loved reading how Harris went from Hillary bashing at a goat pageant to burning thrift-store bras as a feminist protest at her conservative college. So much of her story resonated with my own.

As I sat, consuming the pages, I wondered, What now? I may be over-reaching in my analysis, but I dare say that we are watching the coming of power of many women who learned the ways of politics through the pro-life movement.

Think about it… we’ve got Sarah Palin. We’ve got Michelle Bachmann. We’ve got a whole bevy of Mama Grizzlies. You may scoff, but they became solid political figures as a result of their activism. Liberals scratch their heads, wondering why so many Republican candidates are wearing power skirts, while those who fought for women’s rights still seems to be overwhelmed with old white guys. But those of us who grew up in the Religious Right hotbed know exactly why (and if you’re wondering, read Harris’s book).

I’m a full-grown, full-blown progressive now. Palin and Bachmann make me feel like I gulped down a glass of milk before realizing it was six-months out of date. But I was raised looking up to women like them, and I often wonder, If I were still conservative, would I be running for Congress right now? The truth is… conservatives are better at developing young leadership than progressives…. They’re even better at developing their young women.

Which brings me to my earlier point about my congregation, about the everyday work. Harris’s book didn’t make me want to give up on politics, or even completely untangle my faith from politics (even though they are now woven together in a different way now). But it did make me realize that if we represent a new generation of political creatures, then we need to roll up our sleeves and get on with the daily grind. Not just in rallies and protests, not just in posters and sound-bytes, but also in day-to-day justice. In being honest journalists and courageous pastors. In making sure that our daughters hear a different message.

One bit of the book keeps rolling around in my mind, and I find myself wrestling with Harris’s words:

Unless you are smuggling soup to the Jews in your attic, I think a political act can’t be an act of love. It can be a good act, even a noble and heroic, but love is something that takes place behind a barricade; it happened in the breaking of bread and the passing of cups. Political love is theoretical, directed at some vague “humanity,” and Jesus didn’t say to love humanity but to love your neighbor.

I suppose that I agree more with what Cornel West famously said: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” I know that politics is messy, but I also believe that individual acts of love are only going to go so far. As one hand feeds the hungry, the other needs to be working on the larger scale.

Putting energy into helping one homeless person does not keep you from defending the poor in the political sphere. Loving my daughter does not keep me from fighting for women’s rights. Recycling one can does not keep me from working to make sure regulations are in place so that environmental degradation does not consume our planet. One action informs the other, and we need to keep doing both.

It is a profound moment for a new generation of politics, especially as we learn to engage our faith in the public sphere. And reading Harris’s story is a good reminder that our faith should never be tightly wound up into one political party. And as we engage our faith in different ways, we can remember that being involved in politics means that we must keep thinking for ourselves.

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4 thoughts on “Alisa Harris: Raised Right

  1. Do you think the reason you’re wrestling with Harris’ words is a generational difference? Like you, I’m GenX. It seems like there’s something in the Millenials that really likes concrete action.

  2. I agree with your perspective and approach. I remember how, back in 1964, the Goldwater arch-conservatives piously kept saying, “You cannot legislate love!” Fortunately, the liberals responded, “True, you can’t. However, you CAN legislate justice.” Amen!

  3. I agree with your perspective and approach. I remember how, back in 1964, the Goldwater arch-conservatives piously kept saying, “You cannot legislate love!” Fortunately, the liberals responded, “True, you can’t. However, you CAN legislate justice.” Amen!

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