“Is not the whole land before you?”
In Congress, a culture of political strife clouds the atmosphere as spiteful statements daily crackle off flaming tongues. Congress is a combat zone where politicians throw deadly verbal grenades, launch legislative bazookas seeking to destroy the foundations of the other party’s achievements, and dig deep filibustering trenches in order to maintain a faithful war of attrition– at least, this is how Congress has come to be seen by the majority of Americans.
Having worked in a Senator’s office for a semester, observing my Senator and his staff as they interact with each other and especially as they talk about the opposition, and having witnessed already several committee hearings, noting that the proceedings are usually mild and formal at best, I can genuinely say, that at least in the Senate, this caricature of Congress is grossly exaggerated. That said, caricature, by nature, aims to exaggerate and always plays upon a few kernels, or more, of truth.
Political strife does indeed seem to be part of the very fabric of Congress, a fact that James Madison was careful to examine in Federalist No. 10, where he said that factions, political parties, are inevitable – in large part a result of different allocations of property – and that the only way to handle them is to control their effects through representative democracy. This democracy, of course, now works itself out in the halls of the Senate and the House.
In my own short work experience, a lot of the anger and abusive language found in the office (and the Senate) seeps out of the phone as callers viciously ramble about or pointedly attack anything that might be bothering them as interns or staff assistants do their best to listen. The callers have diverse interests: anger at Bill Clinton, Mitch McConnell, H.R. Bill 1599 which relaxes GMO labeling, the Iran Deal, Russia and U.S. lack of leadership, Planned Parenthood, both for and against, and anything else under the sun. In my assessment, our representatives (Senators and Congressmen) do fairly well: there is a lot of strife in the hearts of American citizens and there is also a lot of strife perceived within Congress. That is good representation! In my office, the staff is rarely angry, hardly at all. They also don’t viciously attack the Democrats on a regular basis. At most, one will hear a funny critical joke every now and then. Nevertheless, there is certainly a spirit of dislike and blaming, which manifests itself in acute moments: for example, as a
Senator gives a speech in support of a bill and, in a sideways fashion, says something like “this bill will do actual good, not like the other side which just criticizes us all the time.” Criticize the other side for always criticizing. Yes, the irony is palpable.
In Genesis 13, Abram and Lot separate in order to avoid strife and/or to positively resolve it. They both had large amounts of property (silver, gold, flocks, herds, servants, and tents), and there wasn’t enough room for both of them in the land between Bethel and Ai. As a result, the herdsman of Lot and Abram were always fighting. Abram, a peaceful man, did not want this to be. Abram persuaded Lot to separate from him, citing both a reason and a solution: they were kinsmen and therefore should not argue and also that there was a lot of land in other directions to settle. This was Abram’s ministry of reconciliation, a foreshadowing of the work of Christ, as in 2 Corinthians 5: 19: where “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” Abram acted as an ambassador of peace, resolving the strife between him and his nephew Lot. James 1: 17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift comes from above.” Such peace is certainly a good gift.
On the other hand, in Psalm 133: 1, scripture says “how good and pleasant when brothers dwell in unity.” Wouldn’t a more perfect gift be if Lot and Abram were able to dwell together in unity rather than be forced to depart? But because of their hardness of heart, just as in the divorce permitted by Moses, separation was necessary. They could not dwell together in unity because of sin, not only because they both had too much property. Nevertheless, separation was wise and good for both Abram and Lot, but what of the consequences? Lot separated from Abram and went to live in the Jordan Valley, where he later was victim to war and the great sinfulness of Sodom and Gomorrah located there. Two times, Lot was rescued, by God and Abram. Would he have been so vulnerable had he just stayed with Abram, but how could they dwell in unity when there was so much strife because of their vast property and because of sin?
This is a terrible dilemma. It is one that Abram and Lot faced, and it is one that Republicans and Democrats face every day in Congress as they fight to represent the diverse interests of our nation, largely resulting from different allocations of property, as Madison noted. In both cases, property plays a role. Fortunately, God’s grace works above such human conditions.
It is God’s grace that permeates these stories in Genesis as Lot is saved multiple times. It is God’s grace, particularly common grace, which allows for the functioning of government. How could a sinful government, in a wicked generation, function without God’s grace? The answer is simple. It couldn’t. The working out of differences within Congress is a good gift. Just as with Abram and Lot, the division within our government enables peace, as multiple interests are able to be represented. Nevertheless, it is not a perfect gift. We must await our perfect gift: the new Jerusalem, a city which is given light by the glory of God, where there are no more tears and where there is nothing unclean. It will be a city where God dwells in intimate unity with man and where decisions to separate for the sake of peace will be a distant and strange memory.
Thomas Kent interns on Capitol Hill and is a member of the 2015-2016 Falls Church Fellows Program.
Images: FreeImages.com/Susan Maxwell, Craig Toocheck