Etiology and the Polis

A Pastoral Epistle on Origins Stories, the Polis, and the Common Good


As we approach the end of the 2018 midterm elections, my mind turns towards our founding myths, stories which explain why the world is the way it is. Among theologians, we call these stories “etiologies.” Among superhero fans, we call them “origin stories.” Either way, they set out to explain key aspects of some thing or some one’s identity. They ask common questions:

  • Who are we?
  • Why are we here?
  • How did we get here?
  • Why does the world look the way it does?
  • What does it all mean?

Consider the creation narratives in Genesis — one a poetic ode to divine power and created order as God speaks the cosmos into being over seven days, the other showing God as a tender gardener who literally sculpts humanity — Adam from the soil, Eve from Adam’s flesh. Both myths shed light on who God is — the poet with power to speak the world into being or the loving craftsman.

So what are our founding myths in the United States? What do they tell us about who we are?

The common myth, the one taught to school kids, is a scrappy group of self-reliant underdogs throwing tea into harbors and fighting “Mad King George” to break the tyrannical shackles of taxation without representation. These noble patriots, so the story goes, came to this land to flee from religious persecution and fight for freedom.

The actual history is more complicated:

  • The people who came to the colonies came for a variety of reasons. They weren’t all Plymouth Pilgrims and Quakers. Some did come to flee religious oppression. Others came seeking a better financial situation. Yet others came in the cargo-hold of slave ships.
  • The taxation was to pay for a war fought to protect the colonies at their behest.
  • The first attempt at independence, governed under the Articles of Confederation, failed. Our Constitution is younger than our country, and was drafted to grant more power to a centralized federal government.
  • Despite the words of the Declaration of Independence, the notion that “all [people] were created equal” and sent into this world with “inalienable rights” took centuries to hammer out. Men and women fought on battlefields, in the courts, and in the streets to secure those rights for all people. And there is still work to be done today.

On this Election Day, as we vote for those who will lead our polis, our state, it is important to remember these etiologies because this is how campaigns are fought and won. The surest way to see through the lies is to question the story being told from its very origins.

Politicians put forward a narrative, a story explaining where we came from, how we got to where we are now, and what they will do to either resist or cooperate with the current powers in office. It is no secret that politicians distort the truth and lie out-right. In a world of “alternative facts,” propaganda, and foreign misinformation campaigns, how do we know who to believe?

Interrogate the stories they tell. Put them through the ringer. Always demand that a candidate be able to prove what they say — not from some anonymous Twitter account, not “everyone says so,” but with actual and legitimate sources. (And please, for the love of God and country, fact check something before you hit the share button on Facebook. Yes, you — even though you are not running for office. Go to Snopes, PolitiFact, or FactCheck.org. Check with an actual news outlet like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal.)

Is the story they tell about themselves true? Is this millionaire really a “self-made man,” or did he inherit his wealth? Is this person really “for the people,” or are they constantly chasing after corporate donors? Is this policy really put forward by a grassroots effort, or is it being paid for by an industry-wide lobbying firm?

Is the story the candidate tells about America true? When they talk about our “greatness,” are they spinning a fanciful tale closer to Leave It to Beaver than reality, or are they talking about the blood, sweat, and tears poured out by those engaged in the struggle for freedom and civil rights? Do they recognize that most Americans are the descendants of immigrants? Do their stories make room for the wonderful diversity of our national “melting pot”?

What does this story say about who we are as a country? Is this who we want to be? Does this narrative live up to our noblest ideals?

Here, theology is instructive. Ask Luther’s question from the Catechism: What is this? What does this mean?

We live in an age full of fear mongering about “the other side of the aisle” and about people outside our borders. But as Christians, we are called to love in a way that drives out fear. We are called to embrace the truth that sets us free. We are called to live into the story of a Triune God who, out of great love, created, redeemed, and sustains the world.

Any narrative that runs counter to that of a loving God should be rejected.

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