In our text for this week, Paul compares the Christian life to a race run by an elite athlete. With the nation already in the early stages of a political race to decide our president for the next four years, Paul’s discussion of a race is especially pertinent. Paul said that he ran the Christian race with a purpose and aim—not boxing the air, but through discipline and self-control he subjugated his flesh to the will of God’s spirit.
The metaphor that Paul employs is interesting. He switches from describing a race to depicting the activity of boxing. Featured during the Isthmian games in Corinth, boxing matches were often preceded by intimidating displays of “shadow-boxing” where an opponent would pander to the crowd, much in the same way that boxers do now. This wasted energy and futility is starkly opposed to Paul’s image of the boxer whose punches have purpose, meaning, and accuracy. In short, Paul is boxing because he understands that whether he wins or loses has eternal ramifications.
I wonder what light Paul sheds on our political process—particularly the election of national officials. Are they running races of integrity, determined to lead the American people for the sake of our common good, or are they simply “shadow-boxing” and putting on a good show—a show that is impressive, but which ultimately ignores and subjugates very important issues.
Renowned moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre makes the claim that contemporary American political debate is rarely systematic or of any depth. In his words, “political debate. . .is generally and characteristically the antithesis of serious intellectual enquiry.” This occurs when what constitutes the common good is eliminated from public discourse and all that remains is “a politics from whose agendas enquiry concerning the nature of that politics has been excluded, a politics thereby protected from perceptions of its own exclusions and limitations.” In other words, our political actors are simply shadow boxing.
To contextualize this claim, allow me to describe my experience volunteering for the Tennessee Democratic Party in 2010. While I worked to support a state candidate rather than a national one, I would surmise that what I experienced is emblematic of the failure of our politics to philosophize, namely, to discuss the ideological presuppositions upon which our institutions are founded and according to which we believe that we should act. For example, our politics exalts the free market capitalism and individualism that can be (arguably) attributed to philosophers like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, but questions regarding the pernicious aspects of private property that Jean Jacques-Rousseau raised or that Marx offered are anathema to public political debate.
During a campaign to elect a Nashville city council to the office of state representative I found myself engaged in the non-philosophical and banal political discourse that governs many American political elections. I made phone calls to voters on behalf of the candidate using a script given to me that was terse and vague, and yet I was supposed to convince voters that this candidate would fight for them by securing jobs for Tennessee and by ensuring that public safety personnel (police officers and firefighters) would have the resources needed to continue providing services. Such generic language, especially coming from me, since I had never met the candidate nor knew what his opponent’s stance was concerning these same issues, seemed vacuous and artificial.
My experience volunteering only underscored the ways that the process of electing officials occurs within firmly circumscribed limits that obviate discussion regarding the institutions themselves which bolster and maintain the political process. Thus, it is not the viability of capitalism itself as an economic system that is discussed, but rather, bringing jobs and economic development to Tennessee. The physical and emotional cost of these jobs to poor laborers in Third World countries producing the material goods for sale is not mentioned, or even the fact that many who are currently employed do not receive a living wage. Instead, the prospect of jobs was dangled before the voter like the carrot before the horse as simply a tool to motivate a directed action. While I realize that my critique seems to blithely negate the value of the democratic electoral process, this is not my intent. Rather, my experience volunteering illustrated the degree to which substantive discourse concerning the common good—and its attendant values—is largely absent from the American political process.
In other words, as long as politicians debate the middle-class but never speak of our collective obligation to the poor, they are simply shadow boxing. Perhaps everyone does not agree that the American people bear a collective obligation to the poor. But should we not be able to discuss this and hear why our candidates disagree with this Christian posture? If God was concerned with the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, then why shouldn’t we also be? Instead, our candidates understand that winning the political race is an exercise in performance art. It is style over substance, and posture over policy. In other words, it’s shadow boxing—and Paul would definitely not approve.