Playing the Piano in a Whorehouse
It was Harry Truman who said, “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.”
Mark Twain wrote, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
H.L. Mencken was ruthless in his criticism of the political class, “If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”
Will Rogers, while kinder overall, still found politicians easy targets during the Depression, “The United States Senate opens with a prayer and closes with an investigation.”
So, it was a delightful surprise this week to discover the freshman senator from Nebraska, Benjamin Sasse, who waited a full year before making his maiden speech on the floor of the Senate. Ben spent the year listening not only to his constituents but to his fellow senators because he did not want to jump to judgment or make a splash.
He stated, “On the one hand, it is absolutely essential to listen first, to ask questions first to learn how a broken institution got to where it is — because there are reasons. Things drift and fray for reasons; people rarely set out to break special institutions they inherit.” With that, Ben spoke eloquently to what he had discovered and what his hopes were for a broken institution.
One thing I have in common with millennials is skepticism about the political process. I know many of our younger Gathering participants would rather invest their lives and resources in organizations that are focused on solving problems, social justice, evangelism and a whole array of worthy causes. They have little interest in a process that has become increasingly partisan, gridlocked, corrupt and foul. Why open yourself up to the delusions of power, greed and self-aggrandizement that have come to define the political environment — or at least the way we perceive it? Why not stay on the sidelines and let those who thrive on that consume themselves? In fact, how could anyone have credible reasons to run for office and be part of it?
I have felt all those things until recently, and it is through reading the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr and St. Paul that I am changing my mind.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer agonized over the seeming irresolvable dilemma of choosing one evil to defeat another. It would have been far easier to find an alternative good that would suit his conscience but not finding that he chose, at the risk of his own soul, to set aside his deepest beliefs to participate in the unsuccessful plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. It cost him his life. But not only was Bonhoeffer willing to give his life, he was willing to risk his relationship with Christ to dirty his hands and take action: “God wants to see human beings, not ghosts who shun the world.” In fact, he went so far as to say he was willing to freely accept the moral guilt and extreme consequences of his being involved in an act that was so abhorrent to him and God. He did not excuse himself or try to rationalize his actions.
Reinhold Niebuhr pushed against the false innocence of those who refused to risk their own purity by using power. While his intended audience was America as a nation, what he has said is relevant for individuals. We don’t have perfect choices. We are fallen creatures and to expect perfection is to be not only naive but dangerously so. Niebuhr said, “Our idealists are divided between those who would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul and those who are ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a good cause must be unequivocally virtuous.”
Bill McClay in “The Continuing Irony of American History” writes, “He added that America also had to act in the world, and do so effectively. Indeed, it had no choice but to do so. Just as the sinful and imperfect Christian is obliged to work intently for the cause of good, despite his incapacities, so a morally imperfect America was and is obliged to employ its power decisively in the world. Opting out is not an option: or rather, it is an option that is just as perilous as the alternatives it would avoid.”
What was true for America then is true for the individual now. The risk of misusing power is no excuse for opting out. The almost certain risk of becoming corrupted is no excuse for being engaged in the political process. Even the risk of your own soul.
Finally, I recall Paul in Romans 9 saying, “I wish I could help my Jewish brothers and sisters, my people. I would even wish that I were cursed and cut off from Christ if that would help them.”
It’s easy to read Paul’s words and not take seriously what he was saying and what he was willing to trade for his people. He was not being dramatic or glib but deadly serious in being willing not only to risk the purity of his character but his relationship with Christ. That is what Bonhoeffer concluded and what some of our finest men and women may have faced in the muck of politics. They are willing to sacrifice far more than we can imagine.
So, let’s encourage Ben and not have unrealistic expectations about his “reforming” the Senate or being a beacon of light who never stumbles or falls. Let’s recognize the price he is willing to pay and support him and others who have chosen the harder way.