Politics of Compassion

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“The length and width of our table determines the depth and breadth of our compassion,” author and United Methodist pastor the Rev. Mark Feldmeir teaches. “If we can get folks to the table and stay there, even in the difficult conversations, that compassion grows deeper and wider and allows us to be agents of compassion.”

As the U.S. presidential election nears, we appear to be a divided nation—not only in politics but also in the church. In his new book, A House Divided: Engaging the Issues through the Politics of Compassion, Feldmeir writes, “Americans are not nearly as polarized in their actual convictions as the current political rhetoric suggests.”

In his book and in this conversation, he encourages and equips us to have constructive conversations on challenging topics like climate change, immigration, and racism. By starting from where we already agree, we can become more comfortable with welcoming differing opinions to the table.

Mark Feldmeir

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This episode posted on September 4, 2020.

Transcript

Prologue

Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

My guest today is the Reverend Mark Feldmeir. He’s the pastor of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. He’s also the author of a new book called A House Divided: Engaging the Issues through the Politics of Compassion. In his book and in our talk today he encourages us to have these conversations on difficult issues, with members of our church, with our friends and our families. And he gives us some tools to do it in constructive ways.

Conversation

Joe: Mark Feldmeir, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

The Rev. Mark Feldmeir: Thank you. It’s great to be here, Joe. I appreciate the opportunity.

Joe: We live at a time when it appears that we in the United States are as polarized as we’ve ever been as we draw nearer to November and a presidential election, but in your new book, A House Divided, you say Americans are not nearly as polarized in their actual convictions as the current political rhetoric suggests. So can you tell me how we’re not as far apart as we appear?

Mark: I think if you look at polls on any particular issues, especially those issues that I identified in the book what you see is some general consensus that sort of gathers around the middle and the more you go out to the edges is where you get that polarization.

I think there’s a recent poll that I read in April. I think it was a Gallup Poll. …that indicated that roughly today in America 31% are Democrats, 30% are Republicans and 36% are Independents. I guess the way I interpret that is that at any given moment wherever you are, whether you’re in church or at a local pub or at your kid’s baseball game, anyone around you may likely be somewhere different on an issue than you are, but that growing body of Independents in the country, for me, suggests that we have a growing center in which we can gather, or what I would call that common life or common ground upon which we can find agreement and work for the common good.

Joe:  And you talk about a ‘politics of compassion’ to help us move forward with some of these things that we don’t agree on. What do you mean by a politics of compassion?

Mark: Well, I think there’s a number of ways that we can understand what politics is.

On the one hand we might think of politics as sort of bounded activities with people. For example, voting. We might assume that to be political is to go vote or to have a particular position on an issue or a candidate that leads you to vote a certain way. I think we can also conceive of politics as the systems and structures of governance; and so, agencies, institutions, legislations, these things that define the political life.

I prefer to think of politics as the relational tissue and the relational activities that can shape and define and cultivate… work toward a common good, and those particular activities are grounded in a set of values as we might call them, that define how indeed we relate to each other.

So, I consider compassion to be a very particular word that’s appropriate to the gospels. The Greek word, as you may know, is splagchna. So compassion is often described this ‘splagchnizomai’ in the Greek, but ‘splagchna’ literally means the gut. And in the ancient world the seat of human emotion was understood to be in the gut, not the brain or even the heart as we might say today. And so when we exchange moments of compassion in our lives, we experience them deeply in our gut. And we even use that language today, like, I felt that in my gut or my stomach turned when I saw that, or when I heard that; or, I’m nervous and I have butterflies. And so the gut itself is that place of human emotion.

And if we tap into that place where we feel deeply and deeply in particular for the other—whether that’s human life or even non-human life—then we’re coming closer to a sense of how we can relate to that person or that thing. So compassion is what moves us. The opposite of compassion is not hostility.

The opposite of compassion is apathy. Right? It’s not caring at all. It’s indifference. And so when we’re moved to compassion, we’re moved to make a difference.

Joe: It’s about our life together as well. Right? I mean, it’s about how we can take care of one another and doing things that are not just for our good, but also considering the common good.

Mark: There’s a great political theologian at Duke, Luke Bretherton. And he wrote a book in the last year or so called Christ and the Common Life. He describes politics in this wonderful way, he defines it as this dance between conflict and conciliation. This idea of knowing that we’re going to experience conflict, but it moves us toward a place of conciliation where we find that common ground, at least enough common ground to work for the common good rather than our own selfish or individual purposes.

Joe: Throughout the book you encourage us to address these things from that gut level you were talking about earlier. Oftentimes in the introduction, you make sure you relate it to…it’s no longer just an issue. It’s, “How does it relate to me? How do I get close to it?” Why was that important and what are some of the ways that you did that?

Mark: Well, I’m a pastor. And so it’s important because if I’m gonna talk about these issues with people who represent diverse political perspectives I have to talk about them not from how I perceive them, but where we, again, can deeply feel that common resonance.

What I describe and what I’m trying to frame out in the book and in my conversations with others is this idea of ‘how do we think in terms of these 3 core commits or politics, compassion.

The first being kinship. And frankly it’s radical kinship that’s defined by Jesus. It’s not just connection and community, but it is connection and community with the other who happens to be perhaps an enemy, or at least an adversary or one who is not in agreement with you. And so Jesus in the gospels expands this sort of tribalistic, familial definition of kin to include the other; both the friend as well as the adversary as well as the friendless—those that have no community at all. At the table, he defines each of those not just as friends but as family or kin.

Radical kinship transcends what in today’s world looks more like tribalism, political tribalism, even religious tribalism that says I’m not one of you and you’re not one of me. And we can only identify ourselves according to our ideologies, theologies or cultures. So kinship is one of those defining core commitments I identified.

Two is the Greek word actually, kenosis and it literally just means self-emptying, solidarity. And it’s described in Paul’s letter to Philippians in which Paul describes Jesus as the one who doesn’t take advantage or exploit his privilege as being equal with God, but rather empties himself for the sake of others as a servant. Kenosis recognizes that true politic or activity of compassion requires us to pour ourselves out for the sake of others, for the sake of the common good and to not exploit our power; in fact, to use our power in the ways that are life-giving for others.

The third commitment is what I call delight—and it’s one of my favorite words. Delight is the capacity to see the imago dei or the image of God in the other even in the adversary. And this wonderful phrase that Thomas Berry, a Catholic theologian, used. He says that Jesus sort of transformed the world from this collection of objects into a community of subjects. So that we’re transcending the typical merge or relationship that we have.

Mostly in the modern world today, we see this. We use each other. We scapegoat each other. ‘I’ll do this for you if you do this for me.’ But delight is this posture…. There’s a wonderful Hebrew word kaphets, which means literally to bend toward the other out of curiosity. And so delight means we may not agree and we may land on an issue at the end of the day, a different place, but I’m going to see in you the image of God.

So, kinship, kenosis and delight are the 3 core commitments that I describe as the politics of compassion.

Joe: If we were going to take this and let’s get right into some more specific things. I mean, the United Methodist Church is addressing the evil of racism in the United States and really across the globe. But how do you think about racism? How do you encourage your congregation to think about some of the racist things that are happening in our society?

Mark: That’s a wonderful question, and it’s also an evolving sort of response just in light of the last 3 months or 4 months in our country.

I try to begin with folks in conversations as understanding that most of the people say in my congregation, and in most congregations, number one, don’t see themselves as racist, don’t understand concepts of white supremacy outside the structures of the KKK or Neo-Nazi groups. So to try to help folks in the conversation I try to point to the distinction between how white folk often refer to issues of race as, ‘look I’m colorblind,’ ‘everybody’s equal,’ ‘there are no races, we’re all one race.’ That is sort of grounded in the white experience of my generation growing up where colorblindness is of high value, in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. We were sort of trained to see everybody the same.

So how do we go from colorblindness which is our typically a white mode of life, to color consciousness? That we’ll come to understand the nature of power as it relates to race historically. To be white and have white skin necessarily puts you in a position of power and privilege over and above those who are people of color.

So, number one, I try to help people understand there’s a distinction between colorblindness and color consciousness. So we’re trying to be color conscious. There’s a difference between not being racist and being an antiracist. Right? And so what a lot of white folks want to say, ‘I’m not a racist.’ And so this good/bad dichotomy. We don’t want to identify the fact that we may have racist thoughts. We might have these little micro-aggressions that we don’t even recognize. And that puts us in a bad place. And so we all think we’re good because we don’t say things that are racist or publicly express that. But how do we go from that posture to saying I want to work for justices and I want to use my privilege, again that knosis, my privilege, I want to pour that out to work and advocate and be an ally for those who suffer from systemic injustices because of their color.

So that’s just some of the ways that I try to help people understand. And these are daily conversations we have. I just had one yesterday with somebody who is struggling with affirming all folks but not necessarily understanding what it means to say Black lives matter. Right? And all these things that trigger white folk—that white fragility, as we call it. So it’s a challenge for sure. And the last 3 or 4 months has really exposed, I think, some of the… Minor distinctions have become actually important and central to the conversation.

Joe: One of the things I like that you do is reframe the conversation around what we already agree on. Rather than starting from where we disagree you start from what you call axioms—statements that we can all agree on. So you can pick one. Give me an example of an axiom and give me an example of something that’s not an axiom that we might think is.

Mark: Well, what’s not an axiom is what we experience mostly in our political life, and our news feeds and cable TV, talking heads, which is this caricature or stereotypes that if you believe this you must be a Volvo-driving elitist, right? Or if you believe that you must be a truck-driving redneck.

What I try to do in the book is develop these what we call axioms—this idea that in whatever context, whatever you happen to believe this way or that—that these are agreed-upon principles. So to speak into the conversation of race or racism, we might say that how we think about racism is largely determined by our particular race. So to go back to the point of… We think as white folk that racism is some public projection or expression of bias or prejudice. And so it’s grounded in language and perception.

I use a story in the book about a friend of mine, a colleague, who experienced great fear at night when an African American man approached her in a parking lot with her car broken down. That is grounded in a perception or a stereotype of what it means to be white and black. Whereas to be a black person in America today is experienced not so much as prejudice, although it is, but it’s deeper than that. It’s systemic. Right?

So I use the illustration of a professor who is driving his car home in Atlanta from work. He’s black and gets pulled over and has to go through this experience of humiliation and high anxiety not knowing how that story will end. So how we even talk about race is determined largely by the color of our own skin and how we live in that skin would be an axiom that I would use.

As it relates to, say the issue of healthcare. Health is sort of a crown upon one’s head that you don’t really know that you’re wearing it until you don’t have it anymore. So we don’t really talk about healthcare until we get to a certain point in our lives where we start to worry our health more. And that affects, then, how we engage in an issue.

So axioms are helpful. One axiom I use with respect to the issue of climate change is when we live with some degree of uncertainly we hedge our bets. And that’s the first axiom in the book which is there is science that shows…and most Americans…like 61% of Americans agree with that science, right? And that’s growing. But even if we’re not quite sure, maybe we could at least hedge our bets a little bit and as I refer in the book to maybe taking out an insurance policy on the planet just to make sure we’re not wrong, and suffer from it.

Joe: Another piece of the book is that you end every chapter with what is in essence an outline for a Sunday school class or a small group. It has opening and closing prayers and icebreaker questions and all of those kinds of things. Clearly you intended this book to be a tool to begin discussions on some really difficult topics, which I don’t think we’ve listed yet. So, tell me about why we should be having these conversations and some of the issues that you address in the book.

Mark: Well, it’s interesting. The book itself emerged out of a sermon series by the same title than began beginning of January 2019. In the build up toward that sermon series, there was a lot of pushback in my congregation, a lot of anxiety. Wow, we’re gonna talk about these political issues, and we don’t want to get political in church. We just want to make church church, right?

You know, it’s interesting, every Christmas Eve when we gather for worship we read a story that is profoundly political. Right? “In the days of King Herod when Quirinius was governor….” And suddenly we realize that the Christian narrative is grounded in space and time. And space and time is profoundly influenced by politics and by political leaders, by evil, injustice and oppression.

Trying to help folks who come to church and only want to keep it spiritual is at least pointing to this experience in Scripture that suggests that all things are political. Everything we do, all theology, is political. All of our faith is political. Jesus says it clearly in Matthew 25 when the score is finally settled and you take your final exam it’s not gonna be what do you believe. It’s gonna be, “I was naked and you clothed me; I was hungry and…” Those are profoundly political activities.

So yeah, I think we need to give people permission to have conversations that are in safe spaces. In church if we can model those conversations in safe, healthy, life-giving ways and ways that honor difference, then maybe at Thanksgiving when we sit around the table with Uncle Joe, you know, who has a different opinion from us, we have a way to begin conversations that don’t end with a cage fight, right? And a cold turkey.

Joe: And sometimes what better place than a Sunday school class to have a conversation that’s difficult. But with people that you know love and trust you and you love and trust them.

Mark: We make a great mistake when we assume that Jesus cared more about the spirit than about the body, or about the community. And we historically, as Christians, have created this sort of dualistic narrative that says it’s all about eternal life and not about this life. It’s all about the soul, not the body. And yet Jesus reminds us over and over again that to care about human needs is central to being a disciple of Christ.

Joe: Part of that caring for the body is how we gather together in one place which is politics, right? How we organize ourselves.

Mark: I pastor a large church, and it’s an intriguing congregation in the sense that it’s in probably the most conservative county in Colorado. Yet it understands itself to be radically inclusive on issues of sexual orientation in particular, but it has this wonderful outwardly focused approach and posture to carry forward.

The length and width of our table determines the depth and breadth of our compassion. And if we can get folks to the table and stay there, even in the difficult conversations, that compassion grows deeper and wider and allows us to be agents of compassion when we’re not here in church, when we’re out in the world where it matters.

Joe: Your congregation, like most United Methodist congregations, probably has a diversity of opinions in all these things. And you were saying that you know there was some anxiety about even having these conversations. How has leading these conversations and kind of doing this sermon series, how did it serve your congregation? How have people grown? What have you seen?

Mark: Well, I can tell you that the timing of that particular sermon series was providential in so many ways. I had planned the sermon series months before as I do with all my preaching. And so I had intended for this series to begin the second week of January. So we used the Advent Christmas season to promote what looks like maybe a provocative sermon series on controversial issues. And I planned it so that we would begin the sermon series on the issue of immigration.

The very same week immigration in our country just blew up and caravans and children and families being separated. It was this amazing kairos moment in terms of speaking into a particular moment of time and God sort of breathing on it, and using it as a catalytic moment.

On that particular day we were up 24% in worship attendance. And that attendance over the course of the 8 weeks, I think that by the time the series was over we averaged 16% worship attendance growth during that time.

In fact, I just got a message last night from somebody saying we came to church that day, the first day, just to hear what you had to say and we are now members of your congregation. So I think there’s a deep hunger for honest, hard conversations that are thoughtful, that are generous and fair, and don’t try to resolve issues, but rather open up conversations for further dialog.

So, my hope with the book is that there are pastors would find some courage to try those conversations in their congregations.

Joe: Yeah, I think there’s a lot in there. And even as a member of a congregation, if you want to grab this for your Sunday school class it’s a great way to start having some conversations around those things as well.

One more question, just kind of specifics that you don’t address in the book because it hadn’t happened yet, I’m guessing, is the global pandemic, which has become a source of controversy about the ways that we deal with that. So, how are you thinking about that? How are you talking to your congregation about that?

Mark: It’s a great question. And what I’m coming to see as I do talk with my congregation about the pandemic itself is that the pandemic has exposed significant chasms and problems in our society that I address in the book.

So for example, just take healthcare. What we’ve seen in this pandemic is…I mean, right now there are physicians and medical professionals determining who gets an ICU bed and who doesn’t. And the fight over ventilators, right?

My wife is an educator. She works with a lot of teachers who went back to school just this last week, many of whom have emailed me because they’re members of my congregation, who’ve said we’re scared. We’re scared to go back. We’re scared to bring this virus home to us. Yet, they’re going to teach precisely because they need the healthcare benefits for their families. In this tragic sense of irony, the very thing that leads them to go into the classroom is the one thing that they may need when they come back home in terms of healthcare.

As it relates to race, it’s common knowledge now that the corona virus disproportionately affects people of color and communities of color.

Medical aid and dying: doctors right now are determining who gets an ICU bed and who doesn’t, which is essentially determining the value of one’s life over the value of another.

So each of these issues seems to be opened up a little bit because of the corona virus pandemic. And I think we can look at these issues in different ways that we didn’t see even six, seven months ago.

Joe: Yeah, we’re thinking about it very differently. Well, the last question that I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape is simply this: how do you, Mark, keep your spirit in shape?

Mark: That’s a great question. Maybe that’s the most important question of all, because that’s a political question, too. Right? How we care for our soul determines, I think, the depth of our compassion as well and how we relate to others and our capacity to answer that sort of kenotic relationship and find delight in the world and others.

So caring for the soul is a high priority for me. Most of my days begin early in the morning with a time of prayer. I use a particular morning prayer guide that sanctions a practice, that includes prayer for others, prayer for myself and quiet reflections on a couple of Scripture readings every morning. And that sort of sets me and sets my day and my agenda from there.

I live in Colorado and so the more I can experience the delight of creation, the better person I am as well. I’m an avid cyclist and try to ride a hundred, two hundred miles a week on the bike and stay fit and find that quiet time on the bike to be exactly what I need in terms of my ability to think and reflect on my role in the world.

And I try to camp and fly fish when I have an opportunity. The high country so. Those are the 3 most important things.

I’ve got a good network of friends and a wonderful family. And those are all ways that I keep my spirit in shape.

Joe: Well, Mark, thank you so much. Thanks for your book. Thanks for your work. And thanks for this time you’ve taken to have this conversation with me today.

Mark: It’s been great to have a conversation. I appreciate all your good work, too. Thanks for having me.

Joe: Thanks.

Epilogue

Joe: That was the Reverend Mark Feldmeir, pastor of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado and the author of a new book called A House Divided: Engaging the Issues through the Politics of Compassion. To learn more about Mark or to order his book, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for the notes page of this episode.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation that’ll help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.