Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I’m struggling with making the connection between love and politics. Strange bedfellows, you may say! But it is precisely the question God has called me to live inside. It is the question that burns in my belly. Love, according to the Jesus tradition, is an ethic; and ethics means social relations, and social relations means politics.
I write about performing artists in this “political” blog, I’ve realized, because their vocation calls them to proclaim love in the public square. Their role is to express a vision, a new or higher imagining of what we might be together. To inspire us forward, or chastise us when we stray. As an artist, it is a different task, a different sort of calling, from that of a social activist, who must deal in realities on the ground, in relationships and the logistics of change. Both are crucial.

The term “politics” in the broad sense I’m using it here means negotiation among competing interests in a community. In other words, in its generic, necessary sense.

Real social change entails a process that goes beyond what the people “want.” The mechanics of change move upon what people expect, or better perhaps, what they assume is possible, and what they’re comfortable with. Essentially, what social convention [experience, history, opinion-makers] tells them to expect, usually unconsciously.

Thus the history of social change tells us that “convention” changes, no matter what the conservatives would prefer. There is some comfort in that knowledge, but it doesn’t always make living in the sloooow transition easier. While I personally prefer to dwell in the rare creative air of social harmony and world peace, I am daily confronted, alas, with the failings of what we are together, at work and on the street. Yet this is exactly where we all learn the conventional “wisdom” society teaches.

So if we are going to change what society expects… we must first wrestle love and politics at work and in our daily lives, before the world will change. Rosa Parks, after all, simply got on a bus after work.

Politics Needs Love

What is a loving mediation between conflicting interests? As Sister Rosa and the civil rights movement proved, it is not being a doormat. And as a follower of Christ myself and a preacher of the Word, how shall I respond within a confrontational system, say, at work?
What if I don’t want to be confrontational, I just insist on being treated with respect… and that respect is not forthcoming? Where do I look for the lever of change? Some may suggest, another job! But there are thousands of people in the same position. What if we want respect for them and their work?

It strikes me that the “problem” is not the jobs per se, but the degenerating relationships between decision-makers and the people who implement the decisions.

The employment relationship is a political relationship, to the extent that the interests of workers and employers (and their designates) are distinct. “Love” is a meaningless concept if it is not tested against conflict. Jesus said, Anyone can love their friends – or those who agree with us. But Jesus recognized that life is much more diverse and uncooperative than that. We duck the issue if we apply his teaching merely to “enemies,” and not to those stubborn or unreasonable or unpleasant people we must tolerate each day. Can we even imagine a loving mediation of such differences?
We must -- because I suspect that’s where changing the world begins, in how each of us imagines an alternative to our own social strife. How we imagine a new possibility.

I confess, in my experience as a Union steward with a corporate employer, it’s tempting to make The Suits the “bad guys.” The situation at my workplace has become very tense, as we are methodically understaffed and overworked. Resentment builds as we watch managers (who work a salaried, unclocked day) do our jobs in addition to their own, while our coworkers sit at home with no shifts to work. In physical work like ours, the combination of increased speed and stress is not simply unpleasant, it can also be dangerous. It further saddens me that I am no longer able to find in my work an opportunity to be kind and helpful to people, but instead we as a team can only serve them shabbily and apologize all day. I am no longer proud to be working there. I know I am not alone.

All right then: what if I do move into a different job, in a completely different setting: not corporate retail, but advocacy, say, in a small private organization that pursues political action? What if I move to an enterprise that understands the costs of degenerating social relationships, and seeks a more equitable social structure?

So I make the leap – and what I find there, sadly, is an office culture not so different from the failures of respect in the corporate machine -- in a building literally full of people who want to make the world a better place! How does that come to be? I stayed there as long as I could, sure that the knots in my stomach and the constant, small slights and subtle accusations are all in my head, certain that I just need to work on my own attitude. But at last, I conceded that a place that does not demonstrate trust and creative optimism about its own people is not a place where I can follow God’s call. So I boycotted that bus.

I’ve been reflecting on that experience for a long time now. I have no doubt that virtually everyone there has good intentions. What they lack (like their corporate counterparts) is a grasp of the creative power of mutual affirmation. Having never worked in the crucible of an office environment before that one, I started to connect emotionally with the theories I’ve read about the need for new kinds of leadership [take a look, for example, at Leadership Can Be Taught, by Sharon Daloz Parks; or a small book close to my heart, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, by Rosamund Stone Zander, a family therapist, and Benjamin Zander, a musician and educator]. The urgency of the discussion became apparent as I experienced directly the crying failures of old-style, top-down organizational thinking.
It simply does not occur to some leaders (at any level), that collaboration is not a sign of weakness.

Love Needs Politics
I share this lengthy discussion here, because I know that many – most? – workplace cultures are very similar. And I argue that it’s because many of us, the frustrated workers, resign ourselves to “the way things are done.” We cannot imagine a different order of being a “society” of workers (or taxpayers). But there exist among us, around the world, organizations big and small that do things differently and successfully by more than one measure, by more than numbers or profits. They love people, they honour the planet, and treat relationships with respect.

BULLETIN: Good relationships are productive. Participation is a measure; moral investment is a measure. That is, good relationships are good for the whole system we live in – financially, morally, materially.

Of course, the workplace microcosm can and should be extrapolated to the social and political macrocosm: how do we decide how to treat people? How and what do we punish, how and whom do we support collectively? Put another way: in a democracy, where the job of elected servants is to implement our social values in the law of the land, how do we articulate those values? What measures do we take first of all, to clarify them?
What kind of society would make us proud to belong?

Just as new parents need to be clear with each other about the value system in which they will raise their children, so do we as participants in a democracy need to reflect on what we each want our society to stand for. Equally, just as many new parents don’t have that conversation and end up needlessly squabbling with the children or with each other through the years … so do many voters neglect to clarify their own values, privately or among friends, which they want to see on government’s agenda. Instead, they vote on emotion, not reflection; they respond to media-bytes rather than to convictions (as do many candidates, unfortunately). Or they don’t vote at all, which is its own corrosive kind of contribution.

But perhaps such an awareness of responsible participation begins in the dailiness of the workplace. For many of us, our jobs constitute the majority of our “participation” in society: how do those relationships work? How might they improve? Is your contribution at work respected? Are you respectful of and grateful for the interaction of others? Are you – or your staff – proud to represent your organization every day at work? Proud to engage the community in the name of your company?

Or, alternatively, do you and your coworkers simply assume that bosses are supposed to consider staff their lackeys (or their competition), or that certain positions are less honourable than others, and treat each other accordingly?

Leaders (and future leaders) out there, you may want to check in on that particular “measure of productivity”… We all want to belong to something good. It’s that simple. Whether our sense of belonging is to our work in the world, or to our family of faith or our extended family, if we feel we belong to something we’re proud of, it means we are happy in the social part we’re playing. And the more people who are happy playing a social part, the more alive and humane is the society they create together.

I want to contribute to the Good Society. But let’s start with a boss who won’t break agreements, and a group of long-time coworkers who are kind to the new hires.
Is that naïve? No. There are still buses worth boycotting, and love will still walk all the way home with politics.