I am not a political junkie. I don’t pour over the news coming out of Washingtonevery day, but I do try to keep up with current events. The Obama administration had high hopes for bipartisan cooperation in its first year. Instead we’ve seen the increasing polarization of government. Widely respected Indiana Democratic Senator Evan Bayh named this frustration when he announced on February 15 that he would not run for re-election because “Congress is not operating as it should” and “Even in a time of enormous challenge, the people’s business is not getting done.”
The issues facing Congress are immense. Yet at same time as we need government to lead boldly, we find that Republicans and Democrats have become even more entrenched. The trend over the past 25 years has been for many politicians to put their own political interests first rather than look to the best interests of our country. As a result, legislation in Congress stalls, the government is paralyzed, and people lose trust in their leaders. Citizens express their anger by voting out the party in power, the new party comes in, and the vicious cycle begins again.
Last night the House of Representatives approved a revised Senate bill for health care reform, which will now move to the Senate for approval. As I have followed the ongoing debate over health care legislation, I have become aware of 2 important words: filibuster and reconciliation. A filibuster is a strategy that is used to kill legislation by prolonging debate. Opponents of a particular bill use endless speeches and extensive amendments as stall tactics. One of the only ways to end a filibuster is by invoking “cloture,” which requires a 3/5 vote of the Senate, a “supermajority.” In practice, almost any Senate vote effectively fails without 60% of the vote because of the threat of filibuster.
That’s why the January election of Republican Scott Brown to fill the Senate seat vacated by the late Democrat Ted Kennedy was a critical tipping point. Brown’s election left the Democrats one vote short of the 60 votes needed to pass most legislation, including health care reform. In practical terms, cloture can rarely be invoked now because bipartisan support will be necessary to reach the required supermajority.
In recent days we have been hearing a lot from Washington about “reconciliation,” a word that I had previously never associated with congressional voting. Introduced in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, reconciliation is a specific procedure to streamline debate and implement policy decisions on important budgetary matters. Only 20 hours of debate is permitted, the opportunity for amendments is more restricted, filibusters are not allowed, and a simple majority vote is taken.
After the failure of the February 25 health care summit to find common ground between Republicans and Democrats, and in order to stop a Senate Republican filibuster on the final health care bill, the Obama administration decided to use reconciliation. First, the House would pass the Senate version of the health care bill (last night’s vote) and send the bill to Obama for his signature. A separate reconciliation bill would then be passed by the Senate to make changes to the main health care bill. By doing this the Senate would only vote on the changes, not the main bill, and only a simple majority would be needed.
Republicans object that reconciliation was never meant to be used for a major change in government policy that does not have significant bipartisan support and protest that their voice would be arbitrarily cut off. Democrats, in turn, claim that reconciliation has been employed by Republicans many times since 1974.
I would not make a good politician in today’s environment. I do have a deep desire to be a public servant as well one who serves in the name of Jesus Christ. I also believe that our country needs some form of health care reform, imperfect as the final bill may be. However, I don’t have it in me to engage in the kind of mean-spirited rhetoric and vitriol that divides. Although we will always need supervisory and disciplinary processes to resolve issues in the church, I prefer to bring people to the table and seek common ground rather than inflame differences. My hope is to listen carefully to all voices and work together for solutions that best serve others, especially the very least of God’s children. That’s exactly what reconciliation is in theological terms.
The dictionary defines “reconciliation” as “the reestablishment of friendly relations,” “bringing into agreement or harmony,” or “restoration.” In 2 Corinthians 5:17-19, the apostle Paul says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
Reconciliation lies at the heart of the Christian faith.
- Because you and I are sinners, we cannot save ourselves.
- Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God reconciled humans back into a right relationship with God.
- When we claim Jesus as our Savior and are “in Christ,” we are a new creation.
- God entrusts to each one of us the ministry of reconciliation. By demonstrating restraint, forgiveness, compassion, and generosity, we break the cycle of violence, hatred, and retribution
- You and I are called to act like Jesus by working to restore right relationships between humans and God, humans with each other, and humans with creation.
Reconciliation is the ministry of everyone who claims the name Christian. It’s not optional! So how is Christian reconciliation different from the Senate version?
- Reconciliation sees others as God’s beloved children, not as rivals.
- Reconciliation is not about winning and losing but removes partisanship as we become partners with the same goals.
- Reconciliation does not shut down conversation but involves listening more than talking.
- Reconciliation is not a quick and easy solution but takes time, energy, and commitment.
- Reconciliation is not accomplished with an up and down majority vote but happens when we sit at a table and discern God’s will together.
- Reconciliation invites us to look at the log in our own eye rather than see the speck in another’s eye.
- Reconciliation seeks healing, not harm.
Of course, I am not suggesting that the church is devoid of politics. Health and vitality escape many churches because members are more intent on getting their own way than seeking God’s will for their congregation. Just as hardball politics thrives on polarization and extreme rhetoric, so we in the church find it tempting to focus more on what divides us than what unites us. Filibustering finds its devious way into the church, too, and puts the kabosh on many a ministry.
All I know is that the most important ministry God has given us is reconciliation. As with government, the challenges and opportunities facing the church are too great to ignore or dismiss the incredible potential inherent in seeking consensus.
- Could the church become a model for civil debate about issues of great importance? Isn’t that our call according to 2 Corinthians 7?
- In these anxious times, as tempers flare at home, work, and church, can we invite others to the table, sit across from each other to discuss difficult issues, and stay at the table when the going gets tough?
- Can we find areas of agreement, however small, and use them to build a strong foundation for cooperation?
- Are we willing to let go of our stubbornness in order to change, compromise, and be flexible when circumstances ask for it?
The ministry of reconciliation doesn’t begin with the House of Representatives or Senate. It starts with you and me. Could we as disciples of Christ possibly set the pace and lead the way? Who knows? If we can get God’s business done, maybe the business of Congress will get done, too!