Why “Political” Is Not A Bad Word


“The meeting was so political,” I complained, and my friend understood what I meant. Political, after all, can be a synonym for pointless. Or inauthentic. Or a contest of manipulation. Political is not a compliment, or an effective way to make changes that matter. Right? My friend and I rolled our eyes. Political. What a waste of time.

And then, some four hours later, a school principal with a story challenged both my definition and my cynicism.

The school principal works for a small Christian school in an impoverished neighborhood. With two underfunded elementary schools, and a high school that will close its doors at the end of the year, the neighborhood has a bad reputation. Her Christian school, though small and scarcely funded, has a great reputation, independence, and a stable, supportive community. Through her participation in the Community Institute for Education, this principal hoped to connect with the government-run district schools, and maybe even provide some mutual support and advocacy. She saw the common vision they all shared, to see justice for all children and families.

She had already seen this vision in action. Earlier this year, a student needed special education support and the Christian school wasn’t able to provide it. The student’s parents contacted the district to have their daughter tested, knowing once she was identified the district would have a legal responsibility to provide services, but not knowing how the services could be provided while keeping her at the school she loved. 

And the district, through a responsive principal and a committed special education teacher, had this vision for justice too. The principal listened to the parents’ concerns. The teacher offered to provide remediation first thing in the morning, allowing the student to return to her familiar environment before lunchtime. It was a flexible arrangement, revolving around the student’s needs. And it worked.

“Yes, they had a legal responsibility,” conceded the Christian school principal. “But they could have made it difficult. Instead, they made it easy.” And so, sitting at the Institute and contemplating what faithful, political action might look like in her context, she landed on a simple idea. “I sat there thinking, ‘I wish more people knew this story,’” she said. “And then I remembered I knew someone at the local newspaper.”

She contacted her colleague, the principal at the district school, then the local reporter, and then she connected them. They set up an interview, and soon this positive story--in a school district where the teachers and administrators are often maligned--will be shared with the community.

And that was it, at least for now. She has no hidden agenda, except to take a step toward justice. All she did was acknowledge the rightness of the other principal’s actions, and share the story with the community. Her small action was relational, intentional, and political.

This is an odd way to use the word ‘political.’ Wasn’t it merely kind for both principals to reach out across the gulf normally separating independent and government-run schools? Well, yes. But maybe it was more.

These principals’ small actions--one for the sake of a special needs student, the other as a grateful response--are "political" insofar as they seek the common good of the neighborhood as a whole. They are "political" in that they are seeking justice for all students, and not just the students at their own schools. 

We generally use the word "political" in regard to speeches or policies, but perhaps the true meaning is deeper than that. Perhaps "political" means pursuing justice. Perhaps the child’s parents taking primary responsibility for their daughter’s education to get her the help she needed was "political". Perhaps both principals’ affirmation of educational diversity, that diverse children need diverse schools, was "political" too? 

Perhaps the different responsibilities, for the parents, for the two principals and for the teacher to all work together, for justice, was “political” too.

So perhaps “political” means pursuing public justice for everyone, in every case, big or small.

And though their actions were small, I can’t help but apply Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Luke:

Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” 

Maybe this is a political statement too.


Digging Deeper:

  1. How do you use the term political?  What does it connote for you?  
  2. Think of an issue that you are currently struggling with in relationship to schools?  Who are the people, or stakeholders, connected to that issue.  How might you be able to come together to solve the problem in a way that promotes justice for everyone?

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