When we say that Congress could be as inspiring as the Olympic Games, it’s not with the intent of overlooking imperfections in the International Olympic Committee, or the costs of hosting the games, or the human rights violations.
However, if you can watch humans competing at the peak of physical training and conditioning and not be moved—not be inspired to push yourself faster, higher, stronger in life—then I simply don’t know how you can truly have a vision for—or even value—humanity fully alive. I don’t know how you can claim with legitimacy to love freedom.
But that said, today’s journal is about looking at contradictions and paradox and holding the imperfections of conflicting ideas and finding something new, while comparing and contrasting the Olympics with Congress and American politics.
As a follower of Jesus, the idea of holding imperfection carries the added weight of looking at the cross as the clearest picture of holding imperfection—and transforming the world in the process. I am indebted to Richard Rohr for shaping my thinking on this point. Before we turn to some of his writings though, consider this article from Vice Sports:
As the friend who sent this to me noted, “it’s like finding out Santa Claus is a child molester.” But then again, anyone who has followed the Olympics knows there are imperfections and while I’m thankful that Vice Sports reported them carefully, especially noting the number of people who have been displaced by poorly organized games, we simply don’t have to write the games off as “bad” and get on with looking for the “good” that will satisfy us somewhere else in life. We don’t need to quit having the Olympics just because we haven’t hosted them perfectly. Similarly, we don’t need to quit having a Congress just because we don’t know how to represent and lead the country well. If you’re a follower of Jesus, then whether your work is with the IOC or the U.S. Congress, your calling is to see what’s broken and work to bring restoration.
What I think is so inspiring about the Olympics is that it is a place where athletes can still push the limits of what is humanly possible. Sport, in its purity, is still valued. At the Olympics, we still value the presence of athletes from every nation, and we agree that if you win the most medals in the pool, cross the line first in the 100 meters on the track in Beijing, London, and Rio consecutively, or perform with beautiful precision in the gym, then you are the greatest Olympian, the fastest man, the all-around champion.
I do not think there is a similar reality in Congress or American politics as a whole: I don’t believe there is a uniting bond within the country. I don’t think we agree on what freedom is, how to fight for it, or what it means to be an American. Our visions for American greatness exclude the communities that disagree with us.
But whether we’re talking about the Olympics or Congress, how do we hold the imperfections inside, feel the pain of them, and let that transform us? On August 25, Richard Rohr wrote as the Daily Meditation that where there are two opposites, we don’t have to balance or eliminate them, but rather hold them, “as Jesus did on the cross. To live inside this space of creative tension is the very character of faith, hope, and love.” When we live in this space, as he goes on to note, we can “hold the truth of both positions and take some degree of responsibility for both positions.” As an example, he challenges us to both “carry the shame that has been projected onto our black brothers and sisters” while also recognizing the responsibility of police offers—and feeling the weight of that too.
To talk about specific policy, we could talk about reforming, expanding, or even eliminating the Department of Education as a solution to make education more accessible and of higher quality—but at the same time, we would have to take responsibility for the fact that, expand or eliminate the department, there will still be parents in the U.S. who are disengaged in their child’s education. Let’s say we achieve our education proposals, but parents don’t engage—then what? Do we project the problems onto someone else’s ideology, or do we just patiently recognize that what is real is real—and in holding the pain of it, learn to find something new: a new way of sharing our visions for the country, a new policy, a new way of engaging parents? What about school lunch policies? Too often we forget that our own ideas for school nutrition still aren’t going to fully solve a problem which someone else’s solution has also failed to solve—but if we genuinely believe our ideas for healthy lunches are better, then it’s on us to make the case clearly.
To an extent, I think we see athletes “hold imperfection” well, like when Jesse Owens competed without the best shoes, or when Michael Phelps broke a world record with leaky goggles, or perhaps an even better example is all of the Paralympic athletes who will begin competing in Rio next week. In politics, though, instead of setting proverbial world records when we dislike our circumstances, we give speeches on the House Floor condemning each other, working up a moral outrage no one would believe if we ever got around to being authentic with each other, if we ever learned to hold imperfection and let it transform us.
In noting these athletes, it may seem that the point of holding imperfection and letting it transform us is to achieve some new level of success in politics—that we are only writing about a new way to “be successful,” whatever that means. Note instead what Richard Rohr published just yesterday on August 30—perhaps we need to “unlearn some things”:
We have to learn to see what is already here. Such a simple directive is hard for us to understand. We want to attain some concrete information or achieve an improved morality or learn some behavior that will make us into superior beings. We have a “merit badge” mentality. We worship success. We believe that we get what we deserve, what we work hard for, and what we are worthy of. It’s hard for Western people to think in any other way. But any expectation of merit or reward actually keeps us from the transformative experience called grace.
To conclude, I think we can value both the inspiration the Olympics give us, and also value reforms to make the games better. They are neither wholly inspirational nor wholly a disaster. In politics, we can take responsibility for seemingly contradictory positions, and we can let that breathe life into the way we advocate for the policies we think will make the country better. In fact, I think that if we truly engage in politics with our eyes wide open to all of the problems, if we truly hold the imperfection inside, our work and communication will become more and more beautiful, it will be transformed, the imperfection will give way to a new level of healing: LIBERATUS—we are set free.
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What policy position are you working on, or what problem are you facing at work, that’s requiring you to hold on to contradictory positions? How is doing so leading you to find a deeper third option, a better solution? We’d love to hear from you; write to us using the form below.
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