Politics of the Heart

JohnWoolmanQuoteThe word “politics” carries a dark and negative tone for many Christians. Perhaps this is because we’ve lost sight of the power of one dedicated life.

Take John Woolman, for example. If you are a Quaker, you likely know the name well. Woolman lived in the mid 18th century and traveled up and down the East Coast over a span of two decades talking to his fellow brothers and sisters in the faith about the inconsistency of a person who owns Christian convictions and slaves at the same time. Tirelessly, he spoke against the practice that formed the financial backbone for many Quaker merchants and communities.

Woolman wore plain white clothing because the dyes that were used in his day were the product of slave labor. He chose to fast when food offered to him was prepared or served by slaves. He was a man with convictions and the Society of Friends listened. Quakers became the first religious community to abolish slavery, and they did so some eighty years before the Civil War. In 1873, they petitioned congress to follow suit. It would take time and the spilling of much blood before politicians and the populace would catch on. The Quakers also played a significant role in the network of safe passages and safe houses, the “underground railroad” that enabled many slaves to find their freedom from 1827 and beyond.

We don’t think of Quakers as a “political” people. This is because they understood that it doesn’t take marches, lobbyists, and finances to move a people. Conduct trumped words. Theirs’ was a politics of the heart.

I once interviewed Parker Palmer (listen to the audio podcast below), a Quaker who speaks today with conviction about the means by which any common person, such as you or me, can make a difference in our democracy. He believes it is as simple as owning convictions with integrity, and influencing the people who are in our everyday spheres of influence. We don’t need to be brash or brazen…just bold. We don’t need to visit Washington, DC, but rather to carry our influence gently and quietly into our communities, our schools, and our churches.

In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Palmer describes habits of the heart that enable us to have political influence in the most natural and powerful manner. It all begins with this simple truth: If we wish to influence others, we must not keep our convictions to ourselves. As we speak our minds with grace and show others honor by listening and learning from their perspectives, the tension of diverse opinions can build community and in some cases consensus. Ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Let us not forget that we are the people.

Has politics become a dark or dirty word for you? Remember the words of columnist and author E. J. Dionne Jr, “A nation that hates politics will not long thrive as a democracy.”  We might add, “Christians who avoid politics may lose their influence on the nation.” When we realize that politics begins in the heart, we may become a positive force on the street. John Woolman went against his tendencies as a tailor to wear bleached and colorless clothing as he spoke against the enslavement of fellow human beings. His words and life, however, were clothed in the bright colors of his heart convictions.

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Parker Palmer

William P. (Bill) Campbell is pastor of Hendersonville Presbyterian Church, Hendersonville, and host of the Christian talk radio program, “Beyond Words Radio”.

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