The Gospel According to Knope

Leslie Knope's Campaign PosterThe presidential campaigns are just finishing their transition out of a lengthy primary season and into full-on general election mode. However, we are already nearing the end of what has been, for me, the most emotionally consuming election in years: An off-year, off-season race for an open city council seat in Pawnee, Indiana.

I’m referring, of course, to the campaign depicted in this season of Parks and Recreation, one of the funniest and most optimistic shows on TV.

The show, starring the gifted comedienne Amy Poehler, typically derives humor from loving critiques of America’s civic process. In its fourth season, most of the cast has rallied around Poehler’s energetic, capable bureaucrat Leslie Knope as she runs against Bobby Newport (guest star Paul Rudd), the genial and dim-witted scion of a beloved local processed food magnate. Contrasting Knope’s scrappy idealism against the calculated cynicism of Newport’s seasoned campaign manager has given Parks and Rec an opportunity to go beyond sending up the civic process to sending up the electoral process, as well. And at times, it has gotten profound.

This week, Knope, Newport and a handful of fringe candidates squared off for a riveting debate. The local news anchors moderating the debate took questions “from Twitter, because apparently that’s a thing that happens now.” One of the fringe candidates patiently passed on any question that didn’t afford him an opportunity to wax enthusiastic about gun proliferation. Another repeatedly asserted his devotion to treating Pawnee’s animals as though they were his own children. (Pawnee has a well-established raccoon problem, and the fact that we didn’t get to see their differing responses to how to handle the infestation at Ramsett Park seems like an obvious missed opportunity.)

Newport, meanwhile, only presented one substantive proposal, and it was the centerpiece of the debate: Newport said that if he lost the election, his father would move their factories (and most of the town’s jobs) to Mexico.

Pawneans are a fickle and excitable people, and this kind of declaration could have easily been the death stroke against Knope’s candidacy. However, she recovered. After processing her shock at the potentially game-changing declaration, she responded passionately and sincerely:

I’m angry that Bobby Newport would hold this town hostage and threaten to leave if you don’t give him what he wants. It’s despicable. [The power] to dictate what a city needs—that power belongs to the people. Bobby Newport and his daddy would like you to believe it belongs to them. I love this town. And when you love something, you don’t threaten it. You don’t punish it. You fight for it. You take care of it. You put it first. As your city councilor, I will make sure that no one takes advantage of Pawnee. … This is my home. You are my family. And I promise you: I’m not going anywhere.

Jesus doesn’t offer much in the way of express political prescriptions in the Bible. When cornered by pharisees and Herodians wielding a politically dangerous question about the Roman head tax, he defies the premise of their question and answers in a way that transcends their paradigm. When questioned by the local governors about his political goals, he has nothing to say that they feel is relevant to them.

But he does offer a prescription for the type of attitude a leader should have, and it looks an awful lot like Leslie Knope’s:

You know that the leaders of the Gentiles are lords over them, and their great men exercise power over them. It is not thus with you; but he who wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, and he who wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; as the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his own life for the redemption of many.

(Matthew 20:25–28, Lattimore translation)

Knope’s closing statement resonated with her audience and the viewers because it speaks to the way we all wish power would work. (It also resonated with her opponents: Newport broke the silence that followed by declaring how great he thought that answer was.) We all hope that those in positions of authority—be it in a household, a workplace, a social circle or a government—are worried about the best interest of those without power.

But power doesn’t work that way. More accurately, we aren’t brave or humble enough to wield power that way. If you need any evidence of that, pay attention to the way you talk about your job, your boss and your teammates. No matter what field you’re in, I’m willing to bet that you’ve rarely thought, “I don’t like the way my boss is running our department. If I were in charge and she were in my place, I’d have SO MANY reasonable discussions in which I listened to and thoroughly considered her opinions about how the department should be run, and I’d give them as much weight as I’d give my own ideas.”

No, most people’s fantasies about how they’d run their workplace, their community or their government are ultimately authoritarian. America’s government is structured to work best when the people in charge are open to debate and fully consider the implications of their decisions on a whole host of under-powered peoples. But the pace of work, the pressure of media scrutiny and the need to raise thousands of dollars every week just to prepare for the next election are powerful forces against that kind of humility taking root in the heart of elected officials.

Christians who work in public service or who hold public office would do well to remember to keep their sights fixed on Jesus, who accomplished great work by taking on the role of servant, even when the people he was serving actively tried to elevate him to master. We should also be willing to encourage leaders in every sphere of life to consider approaching their leadership with a servant mindset.

And while we usually avoid endorsing candidates on this blog, I do want to encourage you to vote for Leslie Knope by tuning in on Thursday nights. The election’s in two weeks.

Re-Cap: Ross Douthat, Barbara Hagerty and Michael Gerson at the Trinity Forum

Bad Religion

Cover image taken from the Gospel Coalition

For the first time in a long time (possibly ever), groups that are driven by heresy dominate American public life and orthodox, biblical Christianity has little representation in the public square. That’s the premise of Ross Douthat’s new book, the provocatively titled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, which hit store shelves today. Douthat’s day job is as one of the New York Times‘ token conservative contributors and he makes no effort to couch his partisan allegiance. However, he also admits a simple truth that is now rare and refreshing: There’s room for people of the same Christian faith to vote differently.

For a highly visible and avowedly partisan writer, that could be a sensational act of bravado. After all, critiquing your own party is part of what being a pundit is all about: Using your platform to frame politics for voters and push elected officials into adopting your preferred policies. In one breath, you degrade the opposition, and in the next you critique your own leaders and standard-bearers. That method garners ratings. It develops sway and influence with your chosen political party while avoiding the impression of just being a mouthpiece for party leadership. And because it’s so common, a break with that method could come off as a crass attempt to clash for the sake of attention.

But there’s another option. It could also be a demonstration of gospel-given humility. Douthat doesn’t criticize conservative officials for not standing their ground, for not honoring their base firmly enough, for not making extreme enough stands. Those are the types of charges a pundit could level against sympathetic elected officials to stir up their base and shore up his own reputation as an idealogical stalwart. Instead, Douthat’s critique of American politics more closely echoes the charges of greed and moral corruption that the prophets and the apostles leveled at the Israelites, Romans and surrounding nations.

Douthat kicked off his book tour with a conversation with Barbara Hagerty (religion reporter for NPR) and Michael Gerson (columnist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush) in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Trinity Forum. He outlined his book, citing what he saw as the major heresies dominating American culture and traced what he thought was the biblical worldview’s gradual retreat from public life. Hagerty and Gerson praised Douthat’s book and his writing for the expected reasons—his insight, his wit, etc.—and challenged him to further flesh out his message in some interesting ways: Given that women’s rights are shaping up to be a major element of American political debate this year, how would he discuss women’s rights from a biblical perspective? Is he being too harsh on movements like the gospel of wealth, which seems to be spurring one of the most vibrant spurts of Christian growth in the world at the moment?

The only firm conclusion I think anyone on stage tonight really advocated was that Christians should strive to be “politically engaged, but not partisan.”

Obviously, that’s a message I can agree with.

Election Year Fear

Former senator Rick Santorum ended his campaign for the Republican nomination for president this week, effectively inaugurating the general election. Former governor Mitt Romney, long the presumptive nominee, no longer faces any realistic challengers in the Republican primary, and he and President Obama have begun attacking one another more directly in their public remarks.

In the weeks ahead, the two major political parties, along with scores of television anchors, radio hosts, and deceptively named political action committees will begin advocating for their preferred candidates aggressively. They’ll hold rallies to motivate sympathetic voters. They’ll release ads designed to persuade undecideds. They’ll send volunteers and paid staffers door-to-door armed with talking points written by researchers who have studied the psychological profile of people from every demographic, professional guild and magazine mailing list to which you belong.

And most of them will try to make you afraid.

Afraid of a general American decline. Afraid of a war against a particular right or class. Afraid of the death of an industry. Or just afraid of death.

“My opponent doesn’t want to see you flourish,” is the message underpinning too much political conversation in this country. What makes it such a dangerous message to use as a political attack, though, is that, to some degree, it’s universally true: We know that every human being is fallen, and that means that every human being has a propensity to try to seize power and authority that only belongs to God. We are prone to self-interest and we look out for our own tribe when the scripture calls us to seek the peace and prosperity of strangers, enemies and hostile cities.

It takes a deep, abiding humility born of the gospel to admit that kind of fundamental brokenness without the admission crushing your sense of self. And keeping that innate, fallen disregard for Other Groups in check requires that you be surrounded by people who are bold enough to call you out on it and sympathetic enough to encourage you to transcend it. Being a judge, a legislator or a chief executive doesn’t exempt you from human nature. When candidates imply that a universal human fault is true only of the “other side,” it becomes a little harder for everyone to remember that we are all fallen.

However, just being told that a candidate doesn’t want to see you flourish isn’t always enough to incite the kind of fear that secures a vote. No, the fear really gets stoked when the campaign volunteer on the other end of the phone implies that if the other party wins the election, they’d actually have the power to keep you from flourishing.

Christians reject the belief that any candidate or party has ultimate, apocalyptic power over the fate of a nation because we know the fate of all nations, and it isn’t degradation. It’s renewal.

For millennia, people hoped that the cycle of death and the slow encroaching of entropy weren’t the final truths. Against almost all evidence, the prophets of the Old Testament affirmed those hopes, saying that the will of God was to gather all the nations to Himself, raise up the low places and make the bent paths straight.

For Christians struggling with the dire forecasts of a presidential campaign year, Jesus’ resurrection offers us two assurances: It tells us that life and flourishing can and will overcome even the most inexorable forces of decay and death, and it tells us that the ultimate victory of life over death will come from God, not from our own hands. The apostles didn’t need to administer CPR to raise Christ from the dead.

At the resurrection, even the most inept public administrator will see that all things worked for the good of God’s beloved people. No policy, no matter how badly bungled, can stop all the old, worn things of this world from eventually being made new.

When you’re at a bar, or a coffee shop, or your children’s baseball game, and a friend tells you to be afraid, you have the right to respectfully refuse.

The Abject Optimism of Good Friday

Photo by Andres Serrano for Richmond Lattimore's New Testament

Photo taken from "The Morgue" by Andres Serrano, as excerpted by Chip Kidd for Richmond Lattimore's translation of The New Testament.

Yesterday was Good Friday, the annual commemoration of the worst day of Jesus’ disciples’ lives. Some of them had spent years living with him as itinerant street preachers. Others stayed where they were but radically altered the way they lived their lives, stunting their careers and straining their personal relationships because they believed that Jesus was going to drive the Romans out of Israel and they wanted to be there when he did.

Just a few days earlier, they had given Jesus a royal welcome to Jerusalem in anticipation of his instituting a new monarchy on the eve of the Passover feast. Instead, in the early morning, he was arrested, and his closest friends scattered like roaches. They denied even knowing him, and were so afraid of joining him that they took on the humiliation of running away nakedin a time and culture in which even running in your finest clothing was cause for shame. Most of the ones who stayed to watch his unfair trial and subsequent execution stayed hidden in the crowd.

The reason we know how cowardly, short-sighted and self-interested Jesus’ closest friends were when the going got tough, though, is because they weren’t afraid to say so after his resurrection. Peter, the earliest senior officer of the new Christian church, made no secret about the fact that he denied even knowing Jesus. The only story about his life that James, Jesus’ younger brother, told was about being rebuked and turned away by his older brother for presuming that he would get any attention from him at all. Saul, one of Christianity’s earliest ambassadors to other cultures, made sure people knew he started his career waiting on the people who persecuted and executed Jesus’ followers.

They were wrong about what they expected from Jesus, what they thought of themselves and the way they thought God would work in the world. Why were they willing to admit that? Because they saw the resurrected Jesus. After his resurrection, they understood that he didn’t go through the suffering of good Friday because of them—he went through it for them.

The resurrection had left Jesus’ friends and Christianity’s best early ambassadors so assured of God’s acceptance of them that they could admit their most heinous wrongs—even wrongs they had done to Jesus himself. Even after the resurrection, Peter’s confidence in God’s love was such that he could openly admit when he was wrong about whether Gentiles had to live like Jews to be part of the Christian community.

There are going to be times when we fail to live the lives we should be living. There are going to be times when facts we are sure of turn out to be incorrect. The more personally we understand Good Friday, the more willing we are going to be to concede to the truth. Let’s let Holy Week be a reminder to us to be honest with ourselves, and not feel threatened when the truth isn’t what we wish it to be.

Taking A Lesson From Palm Sunday

Why did the crowd bring palm leaves to Jesus' triumphal entry?

Waving palm leaves today should remind us not just of Jesus' victory, but also of our own penchant for short-sightedness and mis-understanding.

Today is Palm Sunday, so millions of American Christians are going to leave church carrying dried palm leaves folded into small crosses. At my church, we will start the worship service with a crowd of children waving palms in the air while reciting a psalm about how good God is.

Palm Sunday commemorates an event known as The Triumphal Entry: Jesus was heading to Jerusalem for the Passover feast (and to his execution). He had been teaching and performing miracles for just a few short years, yet there were people in every village and city around Jerusalem that recognized him as the messiah, and a crowd of them had gathered at the city gate to welcome him. They didn’t have a red carpet to roll out for him, so as he approached on a donkey, they carpeted the street leading into the city gate with leaves from nearby palm trees and even their own shirts, coats and robes—quite a sacrifice, since many of them likely had only one set of clothes.

Their enthusiasm is understandable, because they knew enough to expect that when Jesus got to Jerusalem, something big was going to happen. They knew that the messiah was supposed to usher in a new kingdom, and they expected that Jesus was going to raise a rebellion against Rome that week and start a new Israelite monarchy.

Of course, something bigger happened that week than most of them expected. Jesus was executed and resurrected, and extended the invitation into his coming kingdom not just to Jews but to the occupying Romans and to gentiles as well. The crowd who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem was expecting a military coup, because that was their only frame of reference for how the world around them could be changed. Rather than becoming a competing power, though, Jesus showed the world that there is a transcendent power. His life testifies to the fact that that power is dedicated to renewal, not domination.

Until the heavens and earth are divinely renewed, Jesus’ followers are supposed to live their lives in ways that give the world around us a taste of what that future kingdom will be like. We should be as eager and enthusiastic about that privilege as the Israelites who laid their only shirts in the dirt to be walked on by a donkey. But we also need to remember that we aren’t yet made perfect. Despite the beautiful, compelling vision the Bible has for healing and flourishing in our world, we’re still just as prone to short-sightedness and mis-understanding as the crowd who welcomed Jesus to his final Passover.

Letter From The Editor

Welcome to Vision of the City, a blog dedicated to exploring what Christianity has to say about approaching civics, politics and public life. I’m not a pastor or a politician (though I have worked for both politicians and churches), and neither are most of the contributors who are going to be adding to the site in the coming months. Wherever you are on the political spectrum and whatever faith you profess, I hope you find the conversations we start here challenging, exciting and encouraging. Or at least interesting.

Keep Not Fear Alive

Good Stuff Eatery

Much like New York

After work today, I’ll get on a bus and head to Washington, D.C., where I’ll meet up with an old friend and spend the weekend hunting down good burgers and checking out the Rally to Restore Sanity, Jon Stewart’s attempt at putting together a “million moderate march.” While I don’t know exactly what’s on the docket for the rally this weekend, I’m expecting a good show with some entertaining speeches, and I’m expecting a staged conflict with Stephen Colbert, whose rival event–the March to Keep Fear Alive–is scheduled for the same time and place.

Colbert’s theme raises a big issue that is of central importance to Christians who are trying to figure out their place and posture in public life: fear.

As things get rolling, I imagine we’ll be talking about fear regularly and in greater depth, because it is a major part of many campaigns for public office. Fear of what will happen to us/our children/our schools/our jobs/our environment/our health/our country/our planet/our values if “the other guys” get elected is an easy and powerful motivator, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that politicians trade on it so often. It encourages us to react quickly and single-mindedly, which is always good for getting out the vote.

Fear is also a recurring theme in scripture, but scripture tends to find it less useful. Under a variety of circumstances, Jesus exhorted his disciples to “Fear not” and “Be not afraid” as often as he commanded them about anything else. Both before and after his resurrection, his message was fairly consistent: “I know it seems like you have plenty of reasons to freak out right now, but don’t.” Even after his ascension at the end of the gospel narratives, “don’t freak out” remains a recurring theme in scripture. Under some of the most dispiriting and threatening possible circumstances, Paul wrote from prison to his young colleague Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, love and self-control” (or, as the KJV puts it, power, love and “a sound mind”).

According to the sermon on the mount, one of the roles believers in Christ are collectively supposed to play in their communities is that of a “city on a hill.” Jesus dares Christians to live as a visible example of the gospel’s story and promises rather than being driven solely by the same concerns that drive their immediate cultural contexts. Christians are asked to operate under the assurance of ultimate freedom, ultimate peace and ultimate flourishing, not under the specter of fear, and we should consider that carefully when we think about how (or if) to use our votes.

A Christian who is truly invested in the peace and prosperity of their community may need to consider not just whether their own vote is based on personal fear, but also whether it would contribute to fear being sown amongst the people around them. Might a candidate whose campaign trades in fear have policy positions that a Christian thinks offer a legitimate chance to make the earthly state around us function better? It’s perfectly possible, and there’s no cut-and-dried answer for how we should order our priorities in such a situation.

If you’re thinking about voting (I know a lot of Christians aren’t. We’ll talk about that later.), there are many factors that could shape your vote: Take the time to look at the candidates’ websites, read their position papers or use the League of Women Voters’ voting guide to get the lay of the land. Vote on which vision of government seems best to you, which policies seem soundest, which candidate seems most capable or who has a message you would most like to see take root among your friends and neighbors.

But when you’re weighing these factors, just remember: Stephen Colbert is probably joking when he says you should keep fear alive, but when Jesus says not to freak out, he’s definitely serious.