Once, in a choir loft, I was advised to refrain from discussing religion and politics. In many ways, these are not considered polite topics for discussion because of deeply held convictions and the possibility of disputes. Still, that’s exactly what I intend to do in this post. Why?
Christians are called to peaceful coexistence with all peoples
Jesus counsels us against rebellion, Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21 NRS). Throughout the Gospel accounts and the rest of the New Testament, we find a difficult balance between living in this world and being obedient to our Lord and King, Jesus. The message is that we must tread the waters carefully to be blameless in our society yet not succumb to temptations towards evil when tested.
Our faith is about thinking more than doing
Our faith is one of heart and mind as we hear in the Shema (and V’ahavta) “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 NRS) which echoes throughout the New Testament. Jesus tells us that this is the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36-38) followed by “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” in verse 39. People want to believe that religion is some separable entity in one’s self and that politics are a personal thing. The problem with that notion is that it is completely pagan – Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are about a lot more than going to services and prayers, they are about how we think as much or more than what we do. They define ways of being, Accordingly, especially for the religious, discussion of Religion and Politics is essential rather than something to avoid. And our way of being is to seek mercy, wisdom, and justice.
Wisdom and Justice are Universal Needs
Very little ancient literature is devoid of religious beliefs and context, most often expressed in practice not in intellectual pursuits such as theology. That notwithstanding, most wisdom has ancient roots and therefore exists both within and outside the confines of religious metaphor and promise. I hope to be seeking wisdom applicable to all, not just some group affiliated with a particular factional element. Still, I use many biblical references as a source of commonly known ancient wisdom that can be verified by the reader. For those who reject the authority of the bible, firstly let me assure you that I am not a literalist and do not take the Bible as the inerrant word of God. That notwithstanding, there is much wisdom in the bible, and in ancient texts in general. It is unwise to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so bear with me.
Justice goes hand in hand with wisdom or rather is part of a wise way of being. And justice cannot exist without mercy and forgiveness. When we talk religion and politics, we must be wise and just, never demeaning people with whom we disagree and often agreeing to disagree. We cannot descend to the role of enemies in debate. We are opponents quite often, yes, but must exist beyond the conflict of opinions in a loving state. We must avoid hating each other. On that note, let us begin.
The New Testament gives us clues on how we should interact with the body politic. St. Paul tells us to be obedient to our rulers because God has put them there (Romans 13:1-9), yet his prior letter to the Corinthians states “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.” (1 Corinthians 2:6 NRS) The gospel accounts are persistent in their criticisms of the ruling class, the empire of Rome, and so forth, so what are we to make of all of this in our interactions with government and leaders? Should we emulate the Amish and withdraw? Should we be band together to force our values on the entire population? I say no to both and that’s what this post is about.
Political activism is rudimentary to Christian Mission
I write a lot about Christianity and Christian beliefs because (a) I am a Christian (although some would debate that) and (b) the western world is dominated by Christian thinking. I strongly believe in the rights of each individual, regardless of their beliefs, to be equal before the law and for legal structures to be completely separate from religious underpinnings, that is, for legal structures to be both wise and necessary for the success of the society as a whole, not to proselytize the citizenry.
Most Christians, including me, struggle with our roles in faith. Some take the short cut of making and strongly adhering to rules and regulations (and trying to make the rest of us obey those rules and regulations which I find offensive and decidedly against the Gospel of Christ Jesus). Some become mystic and put everything in God’s hands to work out what will be.
Then there’s a group of people torn between promises and reality, between history and stories, between oppression, hedonism and being a helpful, loving human being. That last group, the worthless sinners of this world who find life giving hope in the grace of this weird trinitarian God, is where I fit. And we, that is, weirdos like me, have a job to do, one given us by our Lord, our King. That job is to invite others into this often-dysfunctional family, to challenge churches that are arrogant or in conflict with irrefutable scientific evidence such as the age of the earth or the stories of early Genesis, to (try to) treat everyone with respect and show our love to those who hate us through sacrifice for their benefit. That last bit is the hardest part, you know. So, for my small part, I write.
Christianity exists in an unusual, often paradoxical state of inaugurated eschatology. That fancy term means that the end of the present age began with the resurrection of Christ Jesus.
The resurrection of the anointed, the messiah, Jesus and his ascension echoes the book of Daniel “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Dan. 7:13-14 NRS) The death and resurrection of Jesus inaugurate the Kingdom of God, the end state of God’s plan for us all. The kingdom is both now and not yet. Our mission is to invite everyone into the kingdom; it must be their choice to accept the our King through the agency of the Holy Spirit.
Political activism, speaking out, seeking wisdom, justice, and mercy, are part of that mission to invite others into the dawning Kingdom of our Lord.
We should take Jesus at his word when we read Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:3-8 NRS)
If that be true, then we must also deal with Jesus’ admonitions to those who would lead. Things such as “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’” (Matthew 20:25-28 NRS)
This, too, is part of mission. We must not “lord it over people” but, rather, demonstrate by our loving kindness that the kingdom is merciful, loving, caring, accepting. The Christian community should shine with the light that others living in darkness and dark times want. People outside of the community should find it attractive in terms of a loving helpful family. That’s why the basic missionary model is a chapel, a clinic, and a school. Feeding the hungry with food and spiritual food, healing the sick, teaching the uneducated to better their lives.
Somehow, along the way, this basic notion of a humble servant of God who is the image bearer of God (“incarnate”) allowing himself in Jesus to be killed on the cross for our sins, fulfilling the law and leaving those baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus free from their sins, having already paid the ultimate penalty on the cross has been lost and turned into a notion that our duty is to force the world to conform with our notions, notions that vary quite widely and wildly from group to group within the Christian tent.
But, you see, in inaugurated eschatology there is no Christian tent. No, there is the Kingdom of God ruled by Christ Jesus and Christians are his servants, his light to the world. We forget that our King dined with the worst of the worst and called them to service. For that matter, He calls me to service and I’m simply not worthy. He calls the unworthy, he redeems those whom society has discarded. And we dare discard people and denigrate the apples of his eye. Shame on us.
So when we ponder politics, humility is required. What’s more, seeking the good, the best outcome, for everyone, Christian or not, liberal moderate or conservative, the prisoners, the prostitutes, the sick, the elderly, the murderer, everyone. We must remember that Christ calls us to the cross, to the self-sacrificing love that benefits the world, not to self-centered ambitions and notions of forcefully compelling obedience to our interpretation of scripture.
We must also remember that our righteousness comes through the death of Jesus, not through our works. He has redeemed us and all who follow him, and our best works are works of love, true love. Therefore, the best we can do beyond prayer, perhaps, is to advocate for wisdom and justice, mercy and forgiveness, and defense of those who cannot defend themselves.
Wisdom and Justice in Elections
St. Paul writes “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-15 NRS)
Are you for Bernie or Donald or Elizabeth or Pete, or are you for wisdom and justice and the candidate that does their best to lead us in that direction? That’s the first step, to distance ourselves from the propaganda and personality cults in order to look at the person and their track record as regards our two main goals of wisdom and justice. If justice depends on hurting people, it may not be justice after all. If wisdom is what sounds good now but bankrupts people 40 years hence, it may not be wise after all. And I mean that this is applicable to all of our leadership choices, including finding a good doctor.
We live in a society that tears everyone to shreds – after all, no one is perfect and there’s always something to use to allege an unwholesome attitude or failure to be “conservative enough” or “progressive enough”. This severely limits the choices we have, and it’s our fault because we fund the people doing the shredding either through market share and advertisements or through political contributions. Frankly, I think we’d do the country a great service if we’d repeal the 12th amendment to the constitution and let the runner-up be vice president forcing a bi-partisan executive branch in most cases. But wise though that may be, it will never happen. We are ultimately left with the choices we have and must choose from those options towards the best ends for all concerned.
Voting one’s conscience
We tend to categorize candidate by specific positions on hot button topics such as guns, abortion, equal rights for all persons, immigration, and so forth and so on. The truth is that our elected officials cannot directly change any of these items, although the president (or governor or mayor) through appointing judges and veto power may have more opportunity than others. The problem here is that this creates a checklist that ignores the qualities of the person themselves. If a person is not wise and does not believe in justice (and justice does not exist where there is no mercy) then their positions are likely malleable and contrived in order to gain power. We should never consider electing a rabid dog that happens to pander to our hot button topics. First, we should find out about the person. To be clear, in my view, there are several rabid candidates in the fray right now.
Because of this, we are often left thinking that we must choose the lesser of two evils. I can’t vote for this person because of this and that, so I’ll vote for this other person. I’ve done that quite a bit and, in retrospect, I’m not particularly proud of my votes be they for losers or winners.
I’d like to offer another way. It does not lead to glory, that much is certain, but it does lead to a clear conscience having done what we should do as good citizens seeking just and wise leadership. Vote your conscience even if the candidate has some warts and has no chance of winning.
We think of this as throwing votes away, but that’s just not the case. Your vote also sends a message, and is received loud and clear. Case in point, in the last senatorial election in Texas, I voted for Beto. I’m a life long republican who has freed himself of party bonds because my party is leaving me – note that Lincoln abandon the Whig party for the newly formed Republican party for similar reasons. I’m not enthralled with Beto, but I am very disappointed in the performance, rhetoric, and antics of Senator Cruz, and I do believe we sent a powerful message that Cruz should not assume that he’s a lock in Texas if he does not broaden his appeal through more moderate stances.
Discard party fealty when the party has left you. Christ is your king Christians, not the democratic or republican party. Remember that.
Passing the Torch
When St. Paul writes of the race well run and finishing that race (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, 2 Timothy 4:6-7), he uses an athletic metaphor for keeping the faith through the trials of this world. As time passes, we too run the race, and our race is a relay race one generation passing the torch to the next. Unlike the metaphor, passing the torch is not a simple act, it involves mentoring, discussing, and learning, and it takes time set aside for that purpose whenever the opportunity presents itself.
When I look at our federal races, more often than not, I see angry people both on stage and in the audience. I also tend so see older people leading crowd into outrage. This is not how passing the Christian torch looks in my mind’s eye, nor should it be. Neither is it how we should be teaching and passing along wisdom, justice, mercy, and the host of other important elements of thought and practice essential to our community as a whole.
I for one have great hope in the younger generation. They’ve grown up with these dreadful contraptions we boomers invented and we are at a point where they understand the world better than we do. The time for passing the torch is here, and we should be busy supporting younger people to take the lead, not monopolizing the debate and shaking our fists in anger at what we’ve done. We should be the mentor and the student, the wise and the wisdom seeker, and the supporting base for those running past us as time goes forward. This too, should be on our mind when we think about Christian politics.