An Advent lesson for the political class ... and the rest of us

Last night, I guest hosted the Hugh Hewitt show, where the topic for most of the three hours was the horrific Newtown massacre of 20 children and seven adults.  I went into that gig prepared for the worst — a lot of yelling and anger, and sanctimonious proclamations of Truth and Fairness from both sides.  As usual, though, the Hugh Hewitt listeners on both sides of the issue showed that they appreciate a true conversation, one in which people acknowledge that no one has perfect knowledge of human nature and policies designed to address its shortcomings.

That is the topic of my column for The Week, out today.  We have been treated to an avalanche of sanctimony and arrogance across the political spectrum after the shooting, with people insisting that their long-favored hobby horses coincidentally provide a perfect solution to a problem as old as humanity itself — and that’s true of both sides to some extent.  This comes ironically at the Christian celebration of advent, which teaches us lessons in humility and human frailty, and how the power of love will prevail over the love of power.  Too often we assume we can change humanity by asserting enough power to control others, and protect ourselves from life in a fallen world by attempting to impose control our environments, political and otherwise, by hoarding power and goods.

Advent teaches us another lesson entirely — and this year, it’s a lesson that all of us should heed in the face of overwhelming tragedy:

In order to save the world, God sent his Son into the world in human incarnation, and not as a mighty king or dictator to impose God’s kingdom on Earth by force. His Son took on the fullness of human nature and found himself born into poverty and crushing oppression. Jesus did not work the miracles that followed in order to overshadow free will and force people to follow him. He worked his miracles as small signs of mercy in order to demonstrate that salvation isn’t found in princes or in public policy, but in following God’s will and putting love of neighbor in action. The one man who had all the answers spoke in parables to woo the hearts of fallen humanity to that love, rather than seize power and pass a blizzard of laws imposing it.

It’s comforting to believe that we have all the answers, and that we can stave off all of the evils of the world by exercising power over others… which brings me back to my closet. Over the last several years, I have collected almost two dozen jackets and coats, of various styles, fabrics, and sizes. I literally had filled an entire closet with them, absentmindedly, in the years of living in Minnesota, which has at least two dozen varieties of cold. It occurred to me a few days ago, when forced by my wife to clear the closet for company, that I had filled my closet with protection against the worst of winter weather as if I could keep it at bay by a proliferation of outerwear and sheer will. Never mind that I can only wear one at time, and that most haven’t provided warmth to a single person in years — those coats and jackets provided me some odd measure of security, much like Linus and his blanket.

In the wake of the Newtown shooting, we spent the weekend with our children and grandchildren. We saw Wreck-It Ralph and painted ceramics together. We held them close and wondered what kind of world we are handing them — with massive debts already hung around their shoulders and much more to come on our current path, with angry politics divided along old trench lines, and a culture that glorifies the material while discounting the spiritual. This world finds its security in guarding treasures rather than in willingly and individually opening ourselves to others, and our culture and nation are the poorer for it.

As I noted above, I’m not immune from this impulse. I emptied much of the closet and will deliver my old outerwear to a local charity. Instead of wasting the potential of warmth each year, these coats will be providing real security to people who truly need it. Will that change the world? No, and in truth, I’m probably still keeping too many of my favorites, so I’m struggling just to change myself. But as each of us takes those steps, we find ourselves stumbling toward each other rather than marching in the same old trenches. When we do, we are sometimes surprised to discover that we have more in common than what separates us, especially in our humanity.

One does not have to believe in Christianity to understand the powerful lesson of humility of Advent and broken human nature. We certainly must act within the sphere of public policy to craft the most effective and beneficial laws and actions, and to ensure that government serves rather than dictates. However, laws and policies should act to contain human nature and restrain abuses of power; they cannot solve the fallen nature of humanity, and some of the worst regimes in human history have proven that over and over again. We need to remain engaged and put forward our values, but we have to also remember that no one has all the answers — and to beware those who insist that they do. And just maybe, if we approach each other in the same humble manner as He whose birth we celebrate next week approached all of us, then perhaps we will find more to love in each other.

That would truly change the world, would it not?

Humility is not humiliation, and humility is not powerlessness.  It is the acceptance that we cannot impose by power a Utopia where people don’t commit heinous deeds, and that in the end, freedom and liberty are our best bulwarks against the evils that accumulated human power can and eventually will bring.  It is the recognition that we are all fallen human beings, and that we do best by working through policy issues in a spirit that acknowledges the humanity even in our opponents, and work to convince rather than overpower.