The State of Our Union

By Nicholas Soellner

Connecting Faith and Life

Earlier this month, the annual State of the Union address was given, and to no one’s surprise, there were a lot of opinions about what was said. Every year, markers such as foreign policy, national security and the economy are addressed and public reactions span the gamut of “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” What’s more, since this is an election year, the public discourse surrounding the current state of affairs is more combustible than ever. Behind all this lurks a dangerous trend that has become increasingly common in American culture: allowing political differences of opinion to justify treating those who we disagree with as “other.” 

Tell me if you’ve heard something like this before, “If those (insert political party here) would just get with the program, we wouldn’t be in this mess.” Arguments about politics are usually well-intentioned, and when I say “well-intentioned” I mean the two sides actually want a good outcome to the problem at hand and believe their idea offers the best chance of solving it. Hard to believe, I know. But this difficulty tells us the line between “other” and “enemy” is oh so precariously small. 

In his ministry, Jesus was extremely interested in public discourse, and particularly, relationships. “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:43-45). Luke’s gospel addresses the situation with even greater detail, “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). If we look at the Old Testament, we see that Leviticus 19:17-18 tells us, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So who is Jesus responding to? Dr. James Kugel’s book, “In Potiphar's House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts,” explains from the writings of the Essenes (rivals of the Pharisees and Sadducees) that they interpreted “your own people” to only mean those who agreed with their worldview. Sound familiar? As wily and as cunning as he is, The Devil really doesn’t use that many tricks. Dividing people and turning them against one another might literally be the oldest trick in the book (Cf. Genesis 3:12-13).

Our spiritual life isn't measured by GDP or domestic tax rates, so what are some reliable markers of the state of our union with God? I suggest two spiritual barometers, which when combined, can give us an accurate reading. Firstly, St. Ignatius of Loyola’s “Daily Examen” is a five-point reflection on God’s presence in our lives. The exercise can be completed on one hand and takes but a few minutes: 1. Become aware of God’s presence. 2. Review the day with gratitude. 3. Pay attention to your emotions. 4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. 5. Look toward tomorrow. This practice can help us concerning our connection to God (the vertical dimension). Secondly, a quote from Dorothy Day is something to keep in mind: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” As far as I can tell, Day is referring to Jesus’ teaching, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). This is a perspective check, which keeps grounded in Jesus’ intense love of humanity (our horizontal dimension). With these two pieces in hand (the vertical and horizontal), we have our cross which we have been told to pick up daily to follow Jesus. Our Lord is ultimately the best and most trustworthy guide to get us through the seasons of life, be it election season or any other.