When we consider “political engagement,” we often think about big picture national politics. Republicans vs. Democrats, Presidential and Congressional elections, 24/7 news coverage in a cycle that’s meant to keep perpetuating itself. For many of us, myself included, those conversations can feel overwhelming and discouraging. Stories are usually framed as “us versus them,” with people needing to pick a side and then completely ignore whatever facts and arguments the other side might present. Elections at that scale tend to be determined by millions of votes - not to mention, millions of dollars - so it doesn’t feel like there’s any way for a single person, or even a community of people, to have a meaningful impact. It sometimes feels like we are stuck, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s important to stay involved at the national level, but it’s often a draining process.
I know that’s how I feel about national politics. However, that’s encouraged me to be more civically engaged, not less so. I care deeply about people’s access to healthcare, the quality of our education system, the affordability of housing, and so many other things that affect me and my neighbors on a daily basis. Each of those issues is certainly influenced by the decisions made by the federal government. Rather than always expecting the solutions to those problems to come from D.C., though, I see the work that can be accomplished by going small and focusing on what can be done at the local level, and building momentum for positive change with the people in my community. In fact, I recently decided to run for a position on my party’s central committee because I believe that we can do more to get people involved in the electoral process.
At the local level, the political picture looks very different. It looks like knocking on doors and listening to people talk about their hopes and challenges, and discussing what can be done to make our shared dreams come true. It can look like a community association meeting, where people are coming together to tackle the most pressing problems they face, as well as planning ways to get to know each other and show hospitality. Sometimes it’s work, but it’s also fun - this year, our community had a celebration to commemorate our 90th anniversary, where we shared food and talked about what our future would look like together. There’s an energy that comes from these types of efforts, and it creates a sense of possibility for what can be done.
Local politics also have very different outcomes than national politics. As smaller elections are often decided by dozens of votes, getting out there and talking to your friends and neighbors can make a huge difference. Even campaigns that do not win can still be extremely valuable. As a result of the division in our country, often the only thing that seems to matter in high-stakes national elections is the end result. The focus on attaining power is often the cause of our unhealthy political engagement, where we justify unethical behavior or candidates with questionable character simply because it’s important for our side to gain and keep power. For Christians in particular, this becomes a temptation to use politics as power over others, rather than something that serves the greater good of our neighbors. When we become caught up in that mentality of winning at all costs, we become the enemies of those whom we want to defeat, and it harms our ability to testify to a Gospel that is meant for all people, regardless of political affiliation.
In my experience, getting more local can help to frame a different way of political engagement. There can be value in being a part of a good campaign, even if the candidate or issue ultimately loses. I once helped support a candidate in Baltimore who ended up not winning their election, but the campaign itself served to strengthen a movement for racial equity and inclusive development. The time and effort weren’t wasted because it gave people a vision for what we can accomplish if we decide that all of our neighborhoods are important, and that this conviction will help make our city better for years to come, long after the election cycle ends.
That can happen when we become more focused on whether or not the means used are building a stronger community, regardless of the final outcome. I come to politics as someone trying to be an ambassador of reconciliation, trying to find ways to bring people together. Our role as Christians is to understand how we can participate in God’s work in the world by seeking to heal; this divides and overcomes our fundamental separation from each other. We are not coming as people who need to hold power over others, but as messengers who share good news. A fundamental shift in orientation occurs when we are able to talk with and listen to one another. Our motivation isn’t a singular desire to beat the “other side”; instead it is a desire to learn how we can achieve what is best for everyone in our communities.
Following Christ provides us with the tools to be involved at the local level, and being politically engaged in our communities helps us to live better as followers of Christ as we grow in deeper knowledge and love of our neighbors. We may be willing to believe in reconciliation in theory, and perhaps discuss it on Sunday, but the only way to truly be involved in reconciliation is to live it out in practice.
When we talk about how to address traffic problems in our neighborhood, or what to do regarding new development or safety concerns, it creates the space to practically live out the ministry of reconciliation. We can learn to work through disagreements, to respect one another even in the midst of conflict, and to always recognize the value and dignity of other people. We learn how to establish shared values and see the importance of someone else’s opinion, even when our values are different from one another. Because we do not all have the same lived experiences, this is a radically necessary practice for us to be able to appreciate those differences, and find ways to move forward together.
Participating in local politics and seeking reconciliation rather than power has the ability to transform both our personal lives and our communities. We learn to be followers of Christ not only in our churches, which can often just be another part of the echo chamber, but in every place we find ourselves. Local community meetings, town and city council hearings, and even campaign advisory meetings - these all become opportunities to show love to people, and pursue policies and strategies that respect all of God's creation. If we learn to implement these practices with love and respect in our neighborhoods, we can utilize them to transform our states, our nation, and even our world.
-Steve Holt is an Anglican priest serving the city of Baltimore, a project manager in the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), and an advocate for great neighborhoods.