Friday, March 31, 2017

Religion and Politics

This is my first post from day one of a three-month Sabbatical. I'm going long on this one - that's a football reference if you are not a sports fan!

I have jokingly said to friends asking me what this Sabbatical will be about that it's like Seinfeld, which was a "show about nothing." But I say this in jest, in part because I know that groups like Lily will give grants to people who have great "themes" and I don't have one, not really. My Sabbatical will include daily prayer as well as some more structured retreat time at the Society of St. John the Evangelist, It will include family time (in Scotland) and some fun at "preacher camp" (aka the Festival of Homiletics) in San Antonio, Texas,  I don't know how or if all those connect but I'm looking forward to all of them.

But I've also got a reading list - a pretty long one in fact. And I may work out some of that reading on this blog over the course of the next few months as I process it. It probably does have a theme: religion and politics. Or more accurately how can the Church be faithful in a time of political crisis? Because, make no mistake about it, unless one's only source of information is Fox News, more and more people are realizing that our country is in serious trouble right now and needs our prayers and our faithful resistance to policies that are already endangering the poor, the earth, women's health, our LGBTQ neighbors, Muslims, immigrants, refugees...

Sometimes I hear people say that they don't go to Church to hear about politics. But here's the deal: the Bible is about politics. More on that below. But also, early on, the Church defined Gnosticism as a heresy. In short, the core beliefs of the Christian faith are about a real birth - of the Word-made-flesh - and a real death, and a bodily resurrection. None of the post-Easter experiences with Jesus are with a ghost: he has wounds in his hands, breaks bread, eats fish. The early Church insisted that matter matters. The good news of Jesus Christ is not about being "beamed up" to heaven but about the New Jerusalem. To say Jesus is Lord is a political statement; it means that Caesar is not. 

So here's a quick run through the Bible for those who think you can separate religion and politics. Start at the beginning. Start in the Garden where Adam and Eve are asked to care for God's good creation. (Not to dismantle the EPA!) Abraham and Sarah go when God sends them out as refugees in Genesis and they are promised descendants and land. They eventually get both, but the land is contested to this very day. Land is a political matter. If you don't believe me, book a flight to Tel Aviv and go see these places with your own eyes.

Exodus begins with a new Pharaoh in Egypt who did not know Joseph. A pharaoh is a king. Kings are political. This Pharaoh oppresses the people. God hears and sees what is going on and, through Moses, God acts as liberator. Liberation is a political word. The Exodus story is about a group of refugees in search of a better life. If you don't believe me, attend a Seder sometime with Jewish neighbors. What kind of Church ignores oppression in our own world as "too political?"

At the end of the Torah, after forty years of wandering around the Sinai Peninsula, the people are about to enter the Promised Land - without Moses, of course. The leadership "baton" is passed to Joshua who will soon fight the battle of Jericho. The Book of Joshua reads like a military history. Not political? Tell that to the people who were living in Jericho when the walls came tumbling down!

Judges is all about politics, akin to the early days of the United States after 1776 but before 1789. Skip Ruth for now (which is very political) and jump to First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, First and Second Chronicles. Israel wants to be like all the other nations. They want a king. They get Saul, then David, then Solomon. Religion and politics come together, including a big scandal when David sees a lovely woman out sunbathing and invites her over while her husband is off fighting David's war. He has the man killed because he can...because he has power over other people's lives.

Then the monarchy falls apart and the Babylonian army marches in and destroys Jerusalem and the Temple: war is political. Some of the leaders become refugees in Babylon (Iraq) where they lay up their harps and weep and dream of the old country. I don't imagine them as so different in some ways from the Cubans who settled in Miami in another time and place, to pick just one contemporary analogy.

The prophets. Pick one. Any one. Other than those lines from Isaiah that you can't read without Handel's Messiah going through your head, it's hard to think they are about "predicting Jesus." Read Jeremiah. Read Amos. They are about class warfare. They are about God taking the side of the poor. Read Amos 6.

Ah, but all I've talked about so far is the Old Testament, right? I mean it's only 75% of what Christians call "The Bible." But what about the New Testament? How about this? "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled..." (Luke 2:1) Who was Pontius Pilate again? King Herod? The whole story is told in the midst of the presence of a foreign occupying power, the Roman Empire. You can't read the New Testament without the politics - you'd end up with confetti if you tried to cut it all out!

How about Paul's epistles from prison, or his plea to Philemon and Apphia and Archippus to release a slave named Onesimus? How can people who love St. Paul not care about  mass incarceration of people of color?

Or how about the Book of Revelation which borrows language and imagery from the Old Testament to describe how imperial power operates but also imagines a New Jerusalem, a holy city coming down from heaven, and a God who again pitches tent among mortals? Behold, the God who makes all things new!

Too strong? Too snarky? Hey, I'm on Sabbatical! But I am also so very weary of people saying that religion isn't about politics. That is heresy! Religion is always enmeshed with politics and you can't preach from the Bible without going there. As Ghandi so accurately put it, "those who say religion has nothing to do with politics don't know what religion is!"

The question is: whose politics? And should it be partisan? That's a different question. But we need to be more precise. We don't preach pie-in-the-sky "spirituality" because that isn't what the Bible is about. Yes, preachers do need to be careful about misusing their own power to preach their own politics to a captive audience. Yes, preachers should be careful about naming politicians from the pulpit or endorsing one candidate over another, but not necessarily because the Bible prohibits that. It turns out that the IRS isn't so keen on it. But here's the thing: there are costs to discipleship and maybe there are some things more important than tax-exempt status. In any case, an argument can be made that we avoid partisan politics in Church, but we cannot (and must not) avoid the great political questions of our day about violence, poverty, injustice, healthcare...

The Bible challenges all of our ideologies, but not because it is neutral. The Bible, from the first words to the last is about a God who takes sides. Read the Sermon on the Mount. God takes the side of the poor again and again, in both testaments. Does that mean the rich are all going to hell? No, I sure hope not since I live a secure life in the richest nation in the world. But Jesus did say it would be harder for a rich man (or woman) to enter the Kingdom of heaven than to get a camel through the eye of a needle. As my old friend Darrell Huddleston used to say, you can do it, but it makes a helluva mess!

During the next few months, I want to focus in on Revelation for a number of reasons. Watch this blog for more in the coming weeks. My guides into this strange bit of writing will include William Stringfellow, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Walter Wink, and Michael Battle, among others. But I wanted to write this post first. I do hope that most of my faithful readers reach this point and say, "amen." But I also hope if you see this and have yourself said you don't like mixing religion and politics that some of what I've said here will encourage you to rethink that.

Let me be clear: I do not believe that God is a Democrat or a Republican. While I do have partisan views and I do belong to a political party, I have good friends who I know to be people of faith across the aisle who think I'm totally wrong about lots of things. And I may be. Truly. I do believe that people of faith can disagree on political issues and particularly on political strategies. But not on the larger principles. To use one example: people of faith can never turn a blind eye to the challenge to make healthcare affordable for the most vulnerable of our neighbors. We might well disagree on the specifics of a particular plan. But merely moving money from the poor to the rich? That's an offence to the living God. It is simply not an option for people of faith to show neither mercy nor compassion to our neighbors. Go back and read Amos again if you don't believe me!

Religion is all about politics. The harder part is figuring out what God is calling us to do in a particular circumstance. To figure that out we do well to pray for wisdom and courage and humility and also to keep engaging those whom we know to be faithful people who see things differently from us. If we do that we may yet find a way forward, with God's help.


  1. Thank you, Rich, and enjoy your sabbatical!

  2. Thank you, Rich, and enjoy your Sabbatical! Marje Sullivan