Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sarah Palin (Again): On Agapic Love

This morning, as usual, I woke up to the sound of NPR blaring in my left ear, reporting the news as only NPR can. Well, I suppose if we want to be completely accurate about things, other news media can report the news in the way that NPR does; they just choose not to.

Anyway, the news report that seeped into my subconscious mind (before I could fumble my way to the snooze button) infected my dreams with impressions of Sarah Palin relishing her role as Republican attack dog (Barracuda? Lipstick-sporting pit bull?), throwing out zingers against Barack Obama with obvious pleasure, even going so far as to represent his work as a community organizer as an appropriate object of derision.

The NPR report was not, however, about Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention, and it made no mention at all of her self-identification with hockey moms. Instead, the report was about the “bounce” that the Republican presidential ticket was enjoying in the wake of Palin’s entering the race. As the NPR voice put it, voters who had previously been planning to vote against Obama (and only grudgingly for McCain) are now eager to cast their vote for the republican ticket—because Sarah Palin is on it.

And the most enthusiastic converts to such republican enthusiasm are none other than conservative evangelicals. Sarah Palin has consolidated this reliably republican voting block, apparently guaranteeing not only that they will come out to vote in their usual numbers, but also that they will provide the much-needed people-power to bring out the vote for the McCain/Palin (Palin/McCain?) ticket.

The question that finally blasted the sleep from my head was this: Why? Why exactly are evangelical Christians SO enthusiastic about Sarah Palin?

This question may sound na├»ve. Isn’t the answer obvious? Palin is one of their own. She’s a staunchly pro-life, self-identifying evangelical who apparently embraces a fairly literal interpretation of the biblical creation story and who favors abstinence-only sex education in schools. She stands for traditional Christian values. Right?

Here’s my problem. The core Christian value—the value at the heart of Christianity and from which all Christian ethics supposedly derives—is agapic love. In other words, it is a love that transcends ordinary human boundaries and divisions, that extends to every neighbor, not just those we like, that finds its fullest expression only when it reaches out to the bitterest enemies.

A.J. Muste described the nature of Christian love in the following terms: “If I can’t love Hitler, I can’t love anybody.” He was making a definitional point about the nature of agapic love. A love that excludes Hitler cannot be agapic Christian love, because agapic Christian love is precisely the kind of love that refuses to make distinctions between those worthy of our caring impulses and those unworthy of it.

This is the kind of love described by Simone Weil in the quotation that appears under the title of this blog. It is a love radically opposed to the in-group/out-group divisions that so broadly characterize human relations. It is a love, I think, that we are capable of expressing in our lives only when we open ourselves up to a perspective that transcends the merely human one. Put in Christian terms, it is possible for us only when we become channels through which divine grace is free to operate in the world. This is what “submitting to the will of God” really means.

And this love is the fundamental Christian value. It is what Jesus himself reportedly highlighted when he was asked which of the commandments were the most important. It is what St. Paul identified as the fulfillment of the law, when he placed all the earthly commandments under the rubric of the law of love in Romans 13:9-10. And, I would argue, such love for our neighbors is also the practical consequence of love for God. After all, God needs nothing from us. To love God is really about giving ourselves over to God so fully that God’s love flows through us into the world. We love God when we give ourselves over to the God who is love, and when we love as God loves: without distinction or qualification, without the boundaries of in-groups and out-groups.

If this is the heart and soul of Christian ethics and Christian values, then every Christian should be extremely cautious about partisan politics, which embodies the very in-group/out-group divisions that agapic love opposes.

This does not mean that no Christian should ever enter the political arena. I’m not in favor of preserving personal purity at the expense of engaging with the realities of the world. What it does mean is that part of being Christian is a commitment to bringing the fundamental Christian value to those places where it is not routinely expressed. It is about striving to operate in terms of an ethic of agapic love even in those venues in which partisanship and division are the norm.

I’m not at all convinced that Sarah Palin is any worse than the broad stream of politicians in this regard. Partisanship is rampart on the American political scene. But the relish with which she attacked Barack Obama shows that she isn’t any better, either. While she takes the “evangelical Christian” side in the culture wars, the fact that one side in these wars has been identified with the name “Christian” really just shows how far the idea of what it means to be Christian has drifted from the core Christian value of agapic love.

And so, it seems, if one is approaching an assessment of her from the standpoint of someone with an allegiance to fundamental Christian values, one’s reaction should be, at best, tepid.

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