I’m a political junkie. And like many addicts, I’ve been bingeing lately, and I’m not proud of it. I know better (as most junkies do), but I can’t seem to help myself. Two weeks of convention hoopla—spin and jive, sentiment and spectacle, smugness and sarcasm—have left me more hopeless than ever about the state of political discourse in the United States of America.
Where’s the maturity and civility and humility? Where’s the courage to cast our political, economic, and moral challenges in the nuanced ways they require? Why are we afraid of complexity, subtlety, complicated truth? And perhaps most distressing: Why are we so hostile to one another?
These are naïve questions, of course, but when you’ve been “using” for two weeks, imbibing things that aren’t good for you, not sleeping enough, not eating properly—you begin to get the shakes (metaphorically, at least) and, like a weepy drunk, you start asking whiny, useless questions. Detox is definitely in order.
We might be tempted to think that church is the place that gives us respite from the cruelty and absurdity of politics but, of course, if you’ve ever been part of a congregation for five minutes or so, you know how laughable that idea is.
The Epistle and Gospel texts this week speak to the exercise of power in the ekklesia—reminding us how easily power can be abused: how readily it corrupts and wounds, how it can destroy life and health and community. The verses from Matthew have been used through the centuries in ways that have brought great harm to Christians and to Christian communities. Jesus’ words in this chapter have often been read through the lens of exclusion rather than through that of restoration and cure.
The “discipline” described here is not for the sake of punishment and permanent exile but is meant to reconcile one who is estranged temporarily from the body. The two verses that follow this pericope make that clear: Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Not seven times, says Jesus, but seventy-seven times.
Yet when we try, by our own power, to embody this way of living and of receiving the other, we fail. Like politicians in the fight of their lives, we can get ugly, petty, ungracious, inhospitable; we can reduce the other to an unrecognizable caricature. It is only when, as the apostle Paul reminds us, we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14) that the gift of reconciliation to one estranged becomes possible. To “put on Christ” is to imitate the self-giving love that the cross makes possible.
Love, Paul also says, is “the fulfilling of the law” (13:10). But such fulfillment has less to do with trying to earn God’s favor than with living as we were created to live: as persons who in our life together bear witness to the very nature of God in God’s self—a love that shows no partiality, that restores and heals, that welcomes and forgives—over and over and over again.
These are the words and themes and practices that should shape our lives as the body of Christ in a broken and hostile world—this is the detox we need.