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Tertiary Politics

Primary, secondary, tertiary.  First, there is the primary issue.  Then, there is the secondary issue about the issue.  Finally, there is the tertiary issue about the secondary issue about the primary issue.  Some elucidation may be necessary:

Let’s say the primary issue is healthcare.  Fair enough.  That issue, however, spins off secondary issues like tax incidence, extent of coverage, pre-existing conditions, time tables, and so on.  Anyone who either rejects or embraces healthcare enters the bruising fray of secondary issues.  So, healthcare winds up being either a political sledgehammer or a comfort zone, depending on the political persuasion of the group of people in question. 

Now comes the tertiary issue.  At this level, the dynamics of the debate explode beyond the specific issue and its politics to forge distasteful labels, or, in the present vernacular, branding.  Epithets like racist, bigot, commie, Taliban, traitor, neocon or yellow dog Democrat fly through the airwaves and the print media.  Certainly, savvy people who take a position on primary issues expect the resulting repercussions from the opposition, but many of them do not foresee the nastiness of branding.  It seems grossly unfair to be branded simply for declaring oneself for or against an issue.  Yet, the tertiary aspect of the debate is an undeniable political reality. 

We do many things to escape the unfairness of tertiary politics.  For example, we seek to soften the hard labels of conservative or liberal by saying that a person is right-leaning or left leaning.  A middle ground is often staked out that is called moderate, implying that one takes the best of both worlds, but rejects the extremes.  In the Bush era, the term compassionate conservative was advanced as an attempt to blunt the perceived offensive nature of conservatism—without much success, I might add.  Also, many people try to define themselves as a mixture of positions such as a social liberal and a fiscal conservative.  All this manipulation of terms may be tied to paranoia of tertiary politics. 

The immediate exasperation of tertiary politics is that well-intentioned people get lumped together with extremists, radicals, malcontents and riff-raff, all of whom happen to have a similar position on one issue.  This is the genesis of the old adage, “politics make strange bedfellows.”  Proponents of an issue forge unlikely alliances as a way to achieve success for their common ground, but they often have to suffer the penalty of another old saying, “if you lie down the with dogs, you get up with the fleas.”  We are often tainted with the foibles of our cohorts, but rarely with their strengths.

But the further—and more unfortunate—nature of tertiary politics is that it forces the primary issue to take a back seat to the furor it creates.  The public debate engendered by the issue makes it impossible to ferret out the salient points that truly need to be discussed.  Even when one side or the other makes a valid case that the opposition truly finds appealing, the branding that accompanies some concession on their part prohibits any action.  Thus, tertiary politics kills legitimate debate, numbs minds and often suppresses truth.  We cannot venture off the reservation of approved ideas lest we offend the prevailing brand.

Some may think that better education about the issues and the politics that govern them would lead us out of this wilderness.  Hardly.  Few arenas are more rabid in knee-jerk branding than academia.  In fact, members of the intelligentsia play the tertiary political game with greater skill than their lesser-gifted brothers and sisters in the world-at-large.  It would seem then, that learning from the institutions of higher learning serves only to entrench us further into tertiary politics than lead us out of it. 

And, lest we think that the church, because of its message of love and grace, extends a greater dispensation of tolerance to various ideas, we find a measure of disappointment.  We couch our reactions in terms of expediency, wisdom, moving in the right direction and the spirit of the church, but nevertheless, we often resort to our own style of tertiary politics.  Rather than engaging in free and open discussion without the risk of branding, we direct our remarks to sympathetic souls, conduct guarded conversations with those who disagree with us, and refuse to say anything that may rock the boat.  Those who speak their mind find themselves marginalized or ostracized. 

The Apostolic Paul fought against labeling with the Corinthians, among others.  It is intriguing to read his confrontation with them in his second epistle to this church.  The Message Bible renders it this way:

1 And now a personal but most urgent matter; I write in the gentle but firm spirit of Christ. I hear that I’m being painted as cringing and wishy-washy when I’m with you, but harsh and demanding when at a safe distance writing letters.
2 Please don’t force me to take a hard line when I’m present with you. Don’t think that I’ll hesitate a single minute to stand up to those who say I’m an unprincipled opportunist. Then they’ll have to eat their words.
10 “His letters are brawny and potent, but in person he’s a weakling and mumbles when he talks.”
11 Such talk won’t survive scrutiny. What we write when away, we do when present. We’re the exact same people, absent or present, in letter or in person.
12 We’re not, understand, putting ourselves in a league with those who boast that they’re our superiors. We wouldn’t dare do that. But in all this comparing and grading and competing, they quite miss the point.
 2 Corinthians 10:1-2, 10-12. 

If tertiary politics, bigotry and xenophobia live today, we can safely assume that they were far worse two thousand years ago.  One only need explore the conflagration that blew up over the introduction of the Gentiles into the church in order to understand the intensity of the debate at that time.  Yet, through the help of the Holy Spirit, even that culture that was so entrenched in racism found a way to overcome it.  I maintain hope that we can confront the nemesis of tertiary politics in the church and see our way to productive and reasoned dialogue.  It will not be without the leadership of the Spirit, but it will also require human leadership as well. 

Dialogue ends where disrespect begins.  We must confront tertiary politics and refuse to let it drive the personal or organizational climate.  In the end, positions on issues may not necessarily change, but a deepening of respect toward others who differ with us on any issue may create a climate where change at least has a chance.  We can know where we stand without judging each other’s motives or maligning each other’s character. 

Jesus said it best.  “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48.

Loving your enemies sounds the death knell to tertiary politics.

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Reader Comments (2)

Couldn't agree more, pastor! Excellent message that we truly need to practice - daily! Eyes on the prize!

October 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Manuel

Very eloquent and thoughtful. I hope your spirit catches on, because we are otherwise quickly approaching a very huge schism that will cause long-term damage to our society.

October 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim Garcia

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