By Becky De Oliveira —
Express anything relating to the dreaded and verboten topic of politics—a vast concept if there ever was one—and by the slow count of 20, at least one person will have popped up to remind you that Adventists/Christians shouldn’t be “political.” The reminder might be polite or it could come laced with the kind of menace that will make your throat tighten with fear. More likely, it will be simply rude and shrill, and, depending on your level of hardiness, might make you question your human worth.
I learned this the hard way in late 2009 when, as a young faculty member at Andrews University, I stood up to introduce myself to a new cohort of Leadership students during our summer session and made an off-hand remark about how great the National Health System (NHS) is in England. I lived in that country for 12 years and both my children were born there. After both births, midwives and doctors visited my home daily (18 days the first time around). When I struggled with breastfeeding, a purple-haired breastfeeding consultant showed up at my door at 2 in the morning and stayed for more than 90 minutes. My son slept for a solid six hours that night because of her help—and I slept too. Stories like this make many a young American mother sigh with envy.
I am not an expert on healthcare systems, national or otherwise, and have no qualifications that would make my analysis of the NHS particularly relevant at a policy-creating scale, but I do have the solid anecdotal evidence that comes from my experience. Pile up enough anecdotes and you may start to have something that does look like evidence. In this particular context, because I was the only person present with any direct experience of life in England, healthcare-related or otherwise, I didn’t expect my statement to be controversial. How could anyone argue with my lived experience without any comparable lived experience to offer in rebuttal?
Oy. This was 2009 and the United States was in the midst of a big battle over healthcare reform. Part of the argument by those opposing any sort of single payer system was a reliance on the reality of things like “death panels” in the dreaded Socialist countries of Canada, Great Britain, etc. Cue the backlash against me for having the gall to say something positive about healthcare in the UK—for being so shockingly “political” in my statements. Among the audience were people who took several years to calm down about this—those who later confessed (to their credit) that they had really hated me for having said what I did. For making things political.
What does this statement even mean—to be “political”? How have we developed the absurd notion that we can somehow avoid “politics” and yet at the same time engage our communities in any meaningful way? Politics is simply the business of trying to make life work—of making decisions big and small that cumulatively attempt to form what we Americans might call “a more perfect union.” Obviously we disagree—sometimes fervently and even angrily—on what actions, policies, laws, or other measures are going to get the job done. We also disagree about what a “good” society might look like—whether or not it would feature free late-night breastfeeding consultants, for instance. But what is the solution to disagreement? Are Christians really meant to plug our ears and look away from everything that is happening around us? To make no effort to follow our God-given conscience in how we vote and what we speak up both for and against?
Sure, it is technically possible to be something close to non-political. You could go off the grid, unhook the internet, and busy yourself foraging for wild mushrooms, alone. But people who tell other people to stop being political are never off-the-grid types. You know this because they are interacting with you—almost always on the internet. They are reading the same articles you are reading and responding to them—or to comments made by other people on the subject. They are in fact being political.
When people tell you not to be political, what they really mean is that they don’t like what you said.
Why insist that politics is un-Christian and off limits? It is certainly true that we can alienate people by expressing our opinions. We can also alienate people by not expressing them. All political parties and politicians are flawed, as all human things are. We would not be wise to put our faith in any of them. Our faith belongs only with God. But while we are here on earth, we have a responsibility to use our resources, our voices, and our abilities to do the best we can for as many people as possible. We can’t do this alone—so collaboration (“politics” if you will) becomes necessary. It is political to ask for better schools. To advocate for fair labor practices. To insist that inhumane practices such as slavery or debtors’ prisons are abolished. To demand that drinking water is not poisoned with toxic chemicals. “Politics” has achieved much more than angry exchanges over Thanksgiving dinner. It has solved problems and provided justice. It has saved lives.
We need voices raised in conversation and bodies ready to work. “Political” is not a bad word.
Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.