The Sin of the Shutdown
January 23, 2019
By Sister Renee Yann
Can the current political crisis of the United States government shutdown offer anything for our spiritual reflection?
While the situation certainly challenges us to consider the intersection of justice with politics, it might also call to deeper realities of our spiritual relationships with God, Creation and our deepest selves.
My first remembered experience of “shutdown” came at the hands of Big Jimmy, a neighborhood bully who, for a short time, ran our local play group. Jimmy’s only claim to leadership was his size. He was bigger and older than the rest of our little gang. He really should have been part of an older crowd, but I realize now that he was rejected there because of his nonexistent relational skills.
We let Jimmy boss us for a brief, unpleasant baseball season until we learned how to handle him. For one frustrating summer in 1953, Big Jimmy decided who would play on which team, who got the best equipment, and how all questionable calls would be resolved. The designed outcome of all such decisions was that Jimmy would win. His only rationale for any contested decision was the classic shutdown phrase, “… because I said so!”
Like any leader without leadership abilities, Jimmy was ultimately overthrown when we tiny eight-year-olds realized that, in coalition, we were more powerful than he was. It was a tough lesson for Jimmy, but a really important one for the rest of us. We learned that bullying and shutdown were ineffective strategies for long-term success.
All of us, in our personal lives, may experience dynamics similar to those of my childhood sandlot. We may encounter employers, family members, acquaintances, even loved ones who choose to relate by domination. Our efforts at mutuality, respect, and solution-building may be met with a shutdown mentality: “my way or the highway” or “because I said so.”
Situations like these harm and diminish people by compromising their freedom and well-being. They frustrate the human capacity to grow and to create possibility. When we see such dynamics played out on national and global political stages, the frustration deepens, damaging not only everyday lives but our civic character, as well.
Our faith suggests that “shutdown” is a clever translation for “sin.” Shutdown is the abandonment of responsibility and hope for one another. It is never a worthy tool to achieve results. God never shuts us down. With God, there is always an open door, a path forward, an extended hand. All of us, and especially those with political power, are called to imitate God’s infinite hope for humankind by striving to open life up, never to shut it down.
Big Jimmy never understood how to use the power he had. True power must always be used for others, never against them—otherwise it withers us as well as those we try to shut down.
During the current government stalemate, what excuse might our leaders give a federal worker’s hungry child when she asks, “Why do I have to go hungry for your success?”
“… because I said so!”?
Oh, who would want to answer to God for that excuse!
[A Spanish version of this article is forthcoming.]