July 2018

 

Jesus and Politics.

Happy Independence Day! This month, we celebrate 242 years since brave colonists openly signed a Declaration of Independence from king and country and thereby changed the course of world history. This holiday is a moment to give thanks for our nation and to recall our highest aspirations for what it might become.

To mark the occasion, I offer a word about politics. Hold on, you might say. Isn’t it said that church and politics must never mix? The truth is quite the opposite. The dictionary offers many definitions for politics, but when folks argue to keep the church out of politics they are unfortunately not reading very far down the list.

In one sense, politics means the tactics, campaigns, and intrigue used to gain authority and control. The point is to grab and hold onto power. Here, politics are commonly described as ruthless, aggressive, and manipulative: the kind of action your favorite media outlet most eagerly offers as political news.

It is clear Jesus was not political in this way. Every aspect of his ministry, death, and resurrection testified to the exact opposite. He famously taught his disciples: “Whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:27–28). Jesus makes the point even more succinctly, as recorded often in the gospels, “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 19:30). I would pay good money to hear a politician say that in a stump speech. It is the domination-seeking meaning of politics that churches must rightfully avoid.

This, however, is not all. We have to think bigger. Politics also means the many activities and relationships that form our common life as a population. Politics are one way of saying those countless essential decisions and tradeoffs that people who live together — whether in a nation or neighborhood — must establish to live peacefully together. If you have had a roommate, you’ve engaged in the politics of sharing a refrigerator, cleaning the bathroom, and behaving civilly on good days and bad. It is not always easy, but it is essential. As Americans, we also negotiate issues of resources and behavior, and much more, on a far greater scale.

Now, about these politics Jesus had abundant things to say. His emphases were clear: live selflessly, heal the sick, help the poor, treat others with dignity, feed the hungry, forgive others without reserve, give sacrificially of yourself and possessions, seek justice with mercy, turn the other cheek, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Jesus summed up his teachings this way: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (Jhn.13:34–35). Obviously, in the broadest possible sense, Jesus was profoundly political, because Jesus was profoundly interested in how we live together and love each other.

So here is the truth about mixing church and politics: churches must never be partisan but they must always be political, like Jesus. For example, a preacher might rally a congregation toward reforming a biased criminal justice system, perhaps calling on Jesus’ righteous anger at the unfair systems of his day or his calls for healing or mercy. These are values all faithful Christians embrace: fairness, healing, mercy. All of us want to make the world something closer to the Kingdom of Heaven. But the preacher must not try to advance party platforms, slogans, or solutions, no matter how well intentioned. To do so is to exchange gospel truth for partisan gain.

It follows that it is nonsense to ask preachers to avoid political sermons, unless you don’t want to hear about Jesus Christ. It is like asking a priest to avoid using wet water when they officiate a baptism. Partisanship has no place in the pulpit, but relentlessly insisting we love one another certainly does. The call to place God’s love at the heart of every relationship is as political as it gets.

I close with a word of admiration for my fellow preachers in the Episcopal Church in Delaware. I am impressed by the deep commitment to faithful preaching I have witnessed. At a clergy day this spring, we spoke about the joy and challenge of preaching, including the particular demands around preaching politics. I was struck time and again by the care and energy our priests and deacons invest in their sermons. This Independence Day, when we pause again in thanksgiving for our nation and recall our highest aspirations for what it might be, allow me this chance to say an additional word of thanks for political preachers across Delaware and the nation, and for the selfless call of Jesus Christ in their lives.

 

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