George Washington had intended to be president for a single term of office. He stayed to serve a second because he felt that the unity of the young nation was threatened by the deep divergence of views represented by the followers of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
At the end of his second term, in his 1796 farewell address to the nation, Washington famously warned against the creation of political parties, writing;
They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.
Washington understood that his nation’s new government was as susceptible to overthrow or despotic domination as any European crown. He spoke of a malign spirit in our human nature that makes enemies of those with whom we disagree.
The departing president also spoke of an innate selfishness by which each of us desires to control not only our own lives but those of others as well. We Christians would call this “sin” and insist that, by our own efforts, we are unable to expel this selfishness from our nature. It is not a hard case to make when one looks to our history.
Who would claim that the platforms of either the Democratic or the Republican parties fully mirror Gospel values?
American public education was intended to construct a common set of values and skills on the basis of which informed citizens could contend with each other over the direction of the commonweal. We quickly discovered, however, that a spirit of divisiveness would not wait at the door while our youth were being educated. The curriculum of our public schools has never ceased to be a source of contention.
We always think that advances in communication will accelerate our congruence as citizens. First radio, then television and finally the internet would make it possible to exchange ideas, quickly and broadly. If something malign is not written into our nature, how is it that we continue to create contending stations and warring websites?
The Prophet Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern because his message challenged the ruling party. Power can coerce unity, and it is always tempted to do so. As Washington saw it, political parties would become
potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
Who would claim that the platforms of either the Democratic or the Republican parties fully mirror Gospel values? Yet we are probably passed the point that the party system can be jettisoned. Unless you subscribe to a party, you have little say in the selection of its nominee, which is why those selected tend to speak for the sidelines of each party. Our sidelines now seem so distant from each other. Screaming seems the only way to be heard.
Your center, your true partisanship, is in a good you do not yet possess, in a knowledge you must still master, in a way of life you do not yet fully live.
At first glance, Jesus seems to accept factionalism as the inevitable fate of his followers. Their world was as wicked and willful as our own. Yet the Lord insists that we have found a unity in him that will allow us to live and to flourish, even as it sets us apart from those who seek dominion through power.
If you live his beatitudes you will be estranged, even from the bonds of family. If you embrace the stranger, the one who is different, if you seek peace over war, if you listen more than you speak, if you urge others to look to what is to come rather than to fight over what was and who controls what is, you will not be spared the division that sin brought into the world.
Yet living in the way of the savior, you will find life; you will be able to share life; and you are the world’s best hope. Why? Because your center, your true partisanship if you will, is in a good you do not yet possess, in a knowledge you must still master, in a way of life you do not yet fully live.
To call Christ our savior is to say that we are not our own messiahs. To receive a savior is to open yourself to the gift that the other can be, once we ourselves have been freed from the sin of selfishness.
Political parties are engines of self-interest, presenting themselves as saviors. Good government must rise above partisanship. It must contain our essential selfishness, our desire to dominate others. If it does this, it creates a space for the Gospel to be heard and for saner, less selfish spirits to lead.