Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Concrete, Chameleons, and Clay (Brian E. Konkol)

A significant number of nations are scheduled to hold presidential elections within the coming twelve months, and while this moment of global leadership transition will produce a great deal of events worthy of discussion, one aspect that deserves special attention is the diversity of campaign strategies. In specifics, it would appear that some candidates shift their positions and points of emphasis depending upon their audience, while others claim to be absolute in their convictions regardless of the environment. While these realities are by no means unique to our current point in history, I find these behavior extremes to require deeper examination, as they provoke an excellent area of reflection surrounding personal integrity and community responsibility.

As stated earlier, one of the common ditches that contemporary political candidates fall into is the temptation of a “concrete” character. Among other things, one who is concrete holds to a strong and personal view of absolutes that are supposedly unchanging and non-negotiable, and thus they possess an inability to compromise with those who may have diverse perspectives. A concrete character is often grounded in the belief that she/he “knows” who she/he is, and because of these unbreakable principles will not waver or bend her/his understanding regardless of the setting and potential consequences. In other words, a person with a concrete character is immovable, steady, and resolute, and as a result, nearly impossible to bend or twist.

While there is much to be admired in regards to those who display the concrete character, there is also much to be criticized. For example, while concrete may be strong and resolute, it is also fixed in time, stiff, and inflexible, and is thus unable to change regardless of conditions, societal advances, and circumstances. In other words, concrete – sooner or later – will crack. As the current generation experiences cultural and technological change at a rate far greater than any era before it, those who refuse to be changed whatsoever by unfolding knowledge and wisdom allow life to pass them by while remaining stuck in one place. Therefore, while the concrete character may appear to be one of strength, it is ultimately quite weak, vulnerable, and totally unsustainable in the long term.

In contrast to the concrete character is the opposite ditch, which is the “chameleon” character that changes colors based upon the particular setting into which it is placed. In literal terms, a chameleon is adaptable, flexible, and because of its ability to assimilate quickly, it can survive situations that many larger and stronger beings cannot. In metaphorical terms, a chameleon character is thus one that can alter quickly and dramatically based upon its conditions and observations. As a result, such a person is nearly impossible to back into a corner, for she/he will always find a way to change color and slide her/himself free. In other words, it is difficult to discern where the chameleon character stands on particular issues, as she/he rarely seems to be in one ideological location for too long.

While there is a great deal to be affirmed surrounding those who exhibit the chameleon character, there is also a great deal to be rebuked, as those who continually change colors are – in many ways – unreliable and unable to stand tall in the face of opposition. In other words, the (literal) chameleon changes color primarily for survival, yet humans who display a chameleon character often do so in order to protect status and popularity, thus are often untrustworthy in times of conflict. In the context of ongoing political campaigns, the chameleon characters are on full display in an unfortunately large number of candidates, yet one must also conclude that it is also evident within ourselves, thus these notions require a great deal of communal and personal reflection.

While the concrete and chameleon characters may seem like polar opposites, it is striking that both have a similar source: fear. On the one hand, those with a chameleon character often change color due to a fear of losing recognition and/or acceptance, and on the other hand, those with a concrete character refuse to change due to the a fear of change and/or the unknown. When people refuse to listen to an alternative view, it is usually due to fear. When people shy away from unpopular or minority viewpoints, it is often because of fear. When people claim to know who they are and are stubbornly certain about their place in the world, it is often due to fear of risk and an unwillingness to reach beyond their comfort zone. And of course, when someone cannot commit to a cause or follow through on a particular objective, it is often because of the fear of rejection or imperfection. All together, while there are many differences between the chameleon and concrete characters, it is insecurity and fear that often binds them together and holds both characters captive.

In order to move past the two opposing ditches of concrete and chameleon character, and to move from fear to faith, one is drawn toward Isaiah 64:8, which reads: “Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” While a full biblical exegesis is not intended here, what is significant is the profound image of clay within the biblical text, for clay can be hard when needed, but it can also be adaptable and thus can be shaped when water is administered. In other words, a clay character can be both firm and flexible, and in light of the biblical image, it moves based upon the ways in which God seeks for it to be. In contrast to the immovable and static nature of concrete and the inconsistent and wavering form of chameleons, humankind as a clay character and God as the potter is a refreshing and liberating concept for the pursuit of life in its fullness in our day and age.

With these thoughts in mind, we recognize that God did not create humankind to be stiff concrete or floppy chameleons, but rather, we are meant to be clay characters that can be shaped and molded by the same God who brought us into existence. As our daily life experiences have shown, we are altered continuously based upon the encounters of that particular day. For example, when we share a thoughtful conversation, we learn something new, thus our minds have expanded and deepened, which means we have changed. When we make time for daily exercise, our bodies grow stronger, our health improves, and thus we change. When we worship God alongside fellow people of faith, when we hear God’s Word spoken to us, when we obtain and extend forgiveness, or when we receive the Lord’s Supper in Christian community, our spirits are filled, we are sent out for mission in God’s world, and we are dramatically changed. With each passing day God is shaping us, molding us, and creating something new within and around us. And in the midst of it all, God’s love for who we are – regardless of what we have done or left undone – remains steadfast, constant, and totally dependable, thus there is nothing to fear and wonderful Good News to believe.

With all of these thoughts in mind, as presidential elections loom on the horizon in various countries around the world, my hope is that we as a global community refuse to accept leaders who exhibit concrete or chameleon characters. We cannot accept representatives who are unable to evolve and compromise based upon changing circumstances, yet we also must refuse those who lack integrity and only adapt in order to gain voter support and personal influence. While we often witness chameleon character during the period of political campaigns, we all too often see concrete character from the same people once they are firmly placed in office. As a result, the time is upon us to demand both integrity and flexibility from our elected officials in order to pursue life in its fullness, both locally and globally, for all of God’s creation.

In addition to holding our leaders accountable, it is also important to allow others to do the same for us, as we should not expect more from others than we are willing to demand from ourselves. And so, in order to avoid the ditches of concrete and chameleon character, the following questions are worthy of our own attention: In our daily interactions are we genuinely open to dialogue and alternative perspectives, or do we pretend to listen while merely thinking of our next response? Do we follow the way of Jesus and open our lives to those who are poor and marginalized, or do we only surround ourselves with those whom we believe can help us climb the social status ladder? Are we ready to allow the waters of baptism to shape us for the future and guide us to participate in God’s mission of reconciliation around the world, or are we paralyzed with fear and thus unwilling to believe from Monday through Saturday? In addition, can we be persons of integrity when times are dangerous and difficult? Can we embrace faithfulness at the risk of being unpopular? Can we stand firm when tempted to compromise our values too far? Can we speak boldly, act humbly, and trust that God will protect us in the face of conflict? Are we willing to confront the increasingly common obsessions of wealth, materialism, and consumption, regardless of how strong these forces may persist? Can we show patriotism through critique rather than mere blind acceptance? Will we act in ways that resist selfishness and do what is best for all, in this generation and the next?

With all of these thoughts in mind, while some perceive doubt as the opposite of faith, it can be argued that fear is a more accurate opposition, thus concrete and chameleon characters are both closely related to fear and a lack of faith in the God who created us. But thanks be to God, if the Good News found in Jesus is anything, it is the promise that we are loved, we are not alone, and we have nothing to fear. Thus, in response to this realization that God loves us unconditionally for who we are, and because we do not need to change in order to earn God’s favor, we cannot not respond, and we thus never stay as we are! In other words, we are who we are, and God loves us as we are, yet in response to this awesome outpouring of God’s love, who we are is always in motion. And so, like a piece of clay, we are who God created us to be, and we are also “becoming” who God is shaping us to be. We are both complete and in process. We are on the journey and already at the destination. We are a finished product and in deep need of ongoing reform. And so, as the opposite of fear is faith, and because God is worthy of our trust, we recognize that change is nothing to fear and our worth is never to be questioned, for we are the clay and God is the potter. May this recognition teach us to accept who we already are, and also empower us to embrace who God is shaping us to be.