Put your agenda away, it’s not time.

“People shouldn’t use national tragedies to push political agendas!”

How many times have you heard that phrase since last Friday?  I’ve head it more times than I can count.  Usually it is uttered in a negative sense.  The comment is meant as a critique of those who put their own agendas over the needs of the families, communities, and others that are suffering.

Yesterday, I began to wonder if that is what people are really doing? Consider this alternative theory.  When tragedy strikes, it’s a natural impulse to try to make sense of it, and to try to distance yourself from it in this way:  If I can figure out what happened and offer a solution before it happens again, then I can be safe from this happening to me.

In the midst of tragedy, as people do this, they move towards their ideological center.  They grab onto the ideas and frameworks that make sense to them more tightly.

I don’t believe people are trying to use tragedy to advance their agenda as much as they are retreating into ideological fortresses that make them feel safer and more secure.  

If you are familiar with the story of Job, in the Old Testament of the bible, its a story of tremendous loss.  Not only is it a story of loss, but it is a story of loss without purpose or meaning.  Job loses his children, his wealth and his health as a result of a sort of game between God and the devil.

Job’s wife tells him to curse God and die.  Job doesn’t.  Then Job’s three friends come to him.  They sit with him for seven days as he grieves these losses.  On the 8th day it is debate time.  For nearly twenty chapters Job and his friends have it out.  Zizek calls this the first critique of ideology, which is an interesting lens through which to read the story.

While Job did nothing wrong, he did not sin against God in any way – it’s quite the opposite -, his friends tried various ways of trying to get Job to realize that he did.  Either he sinned and isn’t admitting it, he sinned and didn’t know it, and so on.  But this wasn’t the cause.

People often accuse Job’s friends of being poor friends, of talking to much, of being terrible chaplains, and such.  I think they were motivated by a different concern.  If Job was a righteous man who experienced the horror of losing everything for no reason, then they, too, could lose everything in a similar way.  Their dominant ideology was good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  Job was a good person who experienced bad things.  It didn’t fit.  So they hammered away in defense of their ideology, not out of a lack of concern for Job, but out of a fear for themselves.

When the world goes off the rails, we retreat, like Job’s friends back into the ideologies that make us feel safe and secure.    That’s why it is probably good advice that we don’t seek solutions too soon.  Yes, out of respect for those who are suffering greatly.  But also because the initial trauma causes us to circle the ideological wagons.  When that happens, good results are scarce as heated dogmatic debates take center stage.

Sometimes we need to back up, regain our equilibrium and then engage one another in creative ways as we try to solve a mutual problem.  What we can’t do is back up, regain our equilibrium and go about our lives as if it never happened.

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