Commentary

Is citizen participation part of one’s Christian vocation?

There is plenty of evidence that the Political-with-a- capital-P season is fully upon us. Caucuses have happened with record turnout. Campaign ads have been running. The Minnesota Legislature is well into its 2008 session. Political “junkies” revel in the myriad opportunities for debate and analysis, for campaigning and organizing for their candidates.

There is also plenty of evidence that too many of us don’t recognize our own political power and our responsibility to use it. We have a relatively passive — at times perhaps dysfunctional — relationship with politics. We read the analyses in the Op-Ed pages. We watch the campaign ads and yell back at the candidates. We vote. Or not. (Even in Minnesota, with our good voter participation rates, too many don’t exercise this most basic privilege that our form of governance affords us.)

The results of failing to use our power? More than 152,000 Minnesota children live below the Federal Poverty level — 1/3 of them under age 5. About 79,000 Minnesota kids lack health care coverage. An estimated 10,000 Minnesota school-age students are homeless annually. All of these numbers have been going up in recent years.

As 21st century American citizens, we either justify our cynicism or apologize for our ignorance about our government and our leaders. Do we really want to live in communities, in a nation, shaped primarily by cynicism and ignorance?
It’s too easy for us to fall into that trap. If we dare to participate in politics at all, it’s to vote for a candidate who we feel will sufficiently represent our values, and then we cut bait — let’s leave the rest to them to figure out. If we don’t like the outcome we’ll just vote differently next time.

Part of the promise of our democratic system is the ability for all people to participate in governance; to jointly discern how we will structure our common life together. Of course, it must be said that this promise has never been fully realized in terms of full access for all sectors of our society. At Interfaith Children’s Advocacy Network (iCAN), one core value underlying the work is the belief that no matter what structure of authority exists (or who’s in charge within that structure), a citizen cannot abdicate responsibility to govern for the good of the whole.

It has been exciting to see the increased participation in politics this year, and it is time for even more of us to realize what power we have to shape our life together. I challenge all of us to reflect on what it means to be citizens — of our communities, our state, our country, even our world. Then take action to participate in the process of governing.

Politics is not a seasonal event, but the stuff of our daily lives; politics happens 365 days a year, every year, with every decision we make. By being active, engaged citizens each day, we get prepared to engage in the high-profile stuff we think of as Politics. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we are called to be faithful citizens, not citizens who are successful at making perfect policies. So let’s roll up our sleeves and put our values to work at shaping our life together.

Laurie Beckman Yetzer is a diaconal minister and the organizer for the Interfaith Children’s Advocacy Network (iCAN), formerly Congregations Concerned for Children, of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC). For more information or to register for JRLC’s Day on the Hill, set for March 13, 2008, visit www.jrlc.org.