The State of Our Union

Reflection for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time by Rhett Engelking, FAN Director of Franciscan Earth Corps.
This reflection was originally posted in our January 11th newsletter.

This week will mark President Obama’s final State of the Union address and, given the strong marital symbolism in this week’s reading, I am struck with how much a renewal of wedding vows presents the perfect idealized metaphor for what we can hope for as we once again reflect upon the state of our union. Before talk of “romance” and “soul mates” entered into our regular conversation about the love that leads to marriage, marriage was very much a transactional exchange. Marriages were arranged; they prevented wars and secured inheritance. Couples learned to love each other and they didn’t wait around to find themselves or scrupulously date in search of “the one.” In many ways, the commitment of spouses occurred with an eye toward a more perfect union. Marriages have involved ceremonies with public vows and a legal contract for as long as we have recorded civilization, yet only recently have many recognized the value of renewing those vows publicly on the anniversary of the first commitment. Such celebrations of renewed commitment have come to exemplify the ongoing conversion necessary to sustain a long term relationship and they are also present in religious communities. Coincidentally, it was about the same time these public ceremonies reached America that we first got a televised glimpse of all houses of Government and all political parties gathered to reflect on the state of the Union.

Once we look beyond the pageantry, in many ways the State of the Union address has begun to look like a sermon at a wedding of two families entrenched in dysfunctionality. Attendees know that they will be televised and that has lead in part to a cynical theatricality to their very presence. They stand and clap in support, or they sit with arms folded in disapproval. The contentious tone of the event has included hecklers and precipitated an increasing absence of Supreme Court Justices. It has gotten to the point where the speech is a pantomimed microcosm of the state of American political divisiveness. The absurdity of this theater of divisiveness has reached such a high that there are even drinking games and betting pools centering on the numerous partisan rebuttals that have sprung up in recent years. Reactions to the speech occur in such an unconsciously reflexive manner, that we can all forget that the speech is intended to highlight how we are responding to real people in the midst of real struggles. To counteract the cynical tone of response to the event, perhaps it would be good for all parties to reflect upon Paul’s message to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” Often the challenge of the address is to accept that we are all espoused to the same American soil and then look again to see the spiritual benefit of the other side of the aisle.

When it comes to choosing a spouse or selecting a democratic representative, it behooves us to respect that such decisions were made with sobriety. We need to believe in democracy if it is truly to work. Three orientations to Tuesday’s address offer an alternative to cynicism: acceptance, enjoyment, and enthusiasm. Acceptance is the easiest; it just says that this is really how things are. Enjoyment involves gratefulness and focusing on just how far we have come to this point. Enthusiasm (whose origin means “possessed by God”) requires consent to actively participate in what is only now emerging. It is a recognition that the “good wine has been kept till now.” Even in the mundane world, Franciscans have long recognized the gift of spirits in the real world as a social lubricant. A little wine suppresses the antagonism of our judging minds, and has been known to ease tension when seemingly opposed individuals are brought under the same roof. Jesus knew full well that a house divided against itself by ideological rigidity cannot stand. Is it so surprising that he offered us Christ in the form of wine?

Rhett Engelking
FAN Director of Franciscan Earth Corps
Published in: on January 12, 2016 at 9:11 am  Leave a Comment  

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