Monday, December 15, 2008

The Sacramentality of our Democracy

By Marguerite Spencer, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute.

I have been working on the idea of applying the theological concept of “sacramentality” to our democracy.

In the Christian tradition, because the world is created by God and is very good, it has the capacity to make God’s invisible goodness visible. Nature, therefore, is sacramental. The Christian story also recounts how humankind is created in God’s image, a being uniquely aware of itself. As a result, Christians are charged in a special way to embody God’s love. Sacramentality is a responsibility, not a privilege. This is complicated by the fact that humankind lives in the history of sin and often fails to reflect God’s love, taking away from the goodness of creation instead.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes a similar sacramental phenomenon partly contained in Tiep Hien, which can be described as “realizing” or making our convictions real in the world. We do not dwell or remain bound to the place of doctrines and ideas, instead we embody them, bringing them into lived experience.

Our democracy is similarly charged with being “sacramental.” It was founded upon certain truths, among them the principles of freedom, equality and opportunity. These principles, however, lack meaning unless they are embodied or made present in the real world. The founding fathers, knowing that the members of our democracy would struggle with realizing its ideals, fashioned structures and prompts that would curb our propensity toward tyranny. Slavery, for example, not only failed to make present our nation’s enlightened principles, it brought about their opposite: oppression. Only when we set out to secure freedom, equality and opportunity for blacks through amendment and legislation, was our nation once again acting sacramentally, making visible our nation’s goodness, however imperfectly.

Unfortunately, we regularly fail to live up to our self-proclaimed democratic responsibility. Our most recent sins include elevating fear and unchecked force to a hallowed status, and disregarding the rights of the “other.”

It would be folly to assume that the administration-elect will magically resuscitate our ability to make present our nation’s ideals. Yet, the world is looking to us in a new and guardedly optimistic way to once again embody, however haltingly, our founding principles of freedom, equality and opportunity. Many Americans are hoping for the same eruption of goodness. At this critical juncture on our history, the extent to which our hope leads to concerted and transformative action, is the extent to which we advance our nation’s sacramentality.

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