As the national political landscape shifts in the United States, many of us are letting out a collective sigh. Many are feeling a sense of relief, like we can breathe a bit easier.
I felt the sigh come in me as I watched the inauguration. My sigh bloomed and transformed to cathartic tears as I listened to the poet Amanda Gorman, a Black woman, give witness to hope beyond the kind of despair I felt after witnessing white Christian nationalists storm those same Capitol steps only a few weeks earlier.
Her embodied presence and voice was transgressive, a holy violation of the politics of death that have animated, to greater and lesser degrees, the experiment of American democracy.
It’s as if the class bully and his minions have finally moved out, and the toxic, oppressive culture they fomented in the classroom can finally begin to dissipate. The constant threats, the devaluing of bodies unlike theirs, the twisting of truth in service of power, the fear of another episode of actual or psychic harm just around the corner…all performed under the veil of religious piety or prudence or whatever…can finally subside.
Yes, even with the bully and his gang of enablers gone, school is still school. There is still inequity, hostility between students, and a lack of resources for those who need them most; the students who remained silent and moderate while their peers were dehumanized are still around, and the food in the lunchroom is still terrible. But if you pay attention to the faces and posture of those students on the margins of cool, it is evident that something has shifted—a heavy weight has been lifted. And you can begin to see this relief as a deeper sign than a mere return to normal, to the status quo.
We Can Celebrate the Sigh
As Christians, we can still affirm the transience of this present age and our identity as strangers and aliens, while at the same time make space for an earthy, embodied sigh of relief, either for ourselves or for our sisters and brothers for whom the consequences of a national election are not merely conceptual.
I’m describing the need to discern the difference between celebrating and supporting signs that national politics are bending toward the shared flourishing of all bodies (especially BIPOC sisters and brothers) and granting improper, even idolatrous, value to national politics.
In other words, the gut-level relief and chastened feeling of hope many experienced while listening to Amanda Gorman’s poem is not necessarily an indication that a distinctly Christian political witness has collapsed into a flat endorsement of the mechanisms of national politics as our best hope for human flourishing in the present age. There is room for a sigh, for a hopeful AMEN, that issues forth in response to those moments when the state (seemingly) acts in ways that align with how God is renewing all things in Christ.
We do not need to mute a Christ-centric vision for human flourishing or gut the church of its unique socio-political identity in order to celebrate the sigh. The church’s political imagination can be shaped by a distinct christological and eschatological vision, which is also not inherently antagonistic toward the possibility of penultimate goods within non-ecclesial forms of common life.
Even still, the critical question is, what comes next? We also need a Jesus-oriented vision for what comes after the sigh.
A Jesus-Oriented Vision
Having a Jesus-oriented vision “after the sigh” means still being sober about the idolatrous claims of identity and ultimacy that exist at the roots of national politics in the US. It’s not simply that national politics have “gone off the rails,” and the church’s job is to act as an auto-correct, to work only for reform, or merely to serve as the moral conscience of the state, toward the end of a democratic ideal. The problem is deeper.Having a Jesus-oriented vision...means still being sober about the idolatrous claims of identity and ultimacy that exist at the roots of national politics in the US. Click To Tweet
Rather, a Jesus-oriented vision for what comes after the sigh questions the state’s pseudo-theological claims to be the truest, fullest source of human flourishing. Questioning the ultimacy of the state is not about what individual Christians do while also grasping for the power the state wields on the terms determined by the state.
This is what the church does as a living, social embodiment of the new creation God is presently unfolding in Jesus by the Spirit. Speaking and living as Jesus’ social body in the world transgresses and disrupts the political status quo, just as Jesus transgressed and disrupted the way-things-were-supposed-to-be according to the empire and prevailing religious structures. Of course, the “just as” is critical—Jesus never used the coercive tactics of the empire in order to accomplish the purposes of God.
Don’t miss this implication: when we (provisionally) celebrate those places where the movements of national politics align with God’s vision of redeemed humanity in Christ, even that celebration functions as a judgment against national politics because “democracy” always lacks the substance to become what it promises. We celebrate with a particular vision for human flourishing that throws into sharp relief the provisionality and latent hegemony of the state’s efforts to enact communion between diverse bodies.
For instance, a Jesus-oriented vision is able to “read” and receive political performances like Amanda Gorman’s with layered complexity. We can notice how Gorman’s performance has a dual effect: it disrupts a hegemonic politic of death (refracted through white supremacy) but also aches toward democracy as the hoped-for world to come, not yet presently inhabited.
As a political performance, we notice how it is also deeply theological, enacting simultaneous liturgies—a liturgy of disruption and liberation that gestures toward Christ’s transgressive body—but also a liturgy of thanksgiving offered to the state that reinforces its “sacred” character.
So, as we embrace the sigh, we begin to wonder, which world will we allow Gorman’s poem to inaugurate in our political imagination?
A Next Step
One of the first things we can do is discern the sigh. Yes, sink into the sense of relief, but also be curious about what the collective sigh reveals to us.
Wise judgments about how to respond to public events as members of Christ’s body, citizens of God’s kingdom, are always contextually situated and must be discerned. Discernment in Christ’s body is characterized by tending to the sighs of those sisters and brothers who regularly experience oppression on the margins of the prevailing social hierarchy (see 1 Cor. 12:23-26).
My fellow white Christians and I can ask, what does the sigh among our BIPOC sisters and brothers signal to us about what we have missed or overlooked? How is their sigh different from ours? (As a white male, I recognize my sigh is mostly about preference, not navigating daily existence amidst systems built on the denial of my humanity.)
Do our spiritual habits actually train us to underestimate the concrete consequences that shifts in national politics have on the daily lives of our non-white neighbors? Which of our theological systems need renovation because they keep us from noticing, understanding, and sharing in the suffering and joy of our neighbors?Do our spiritual habits actually train us to underestimate the concrete consequences that shifts in national politics have on the daily lives of our non-white neighbors? Click To Tweet
As I listen, a good place to start for Christian political witness after the sigh is articulating and embodying a Jesus-centric vision for power. We can no longer be uncritical about what *kind* of power animates the way we go about working for transformation or the way we relate one to another.
We need a vision for power that moves us toward real sharing with others in the messy particularities of place—an imagination for how Jesus’ power flows there by design rather than by accumulating influence and securing control over others.
As we move forward, let us take heart that Jesus sighs with us, and that the Spirit interprets and perfects so that nothing holy is lost in what we don’t yet understand.