Have a Minute? Thoughts from Pastor Matt…late-August / September 2014
At least to me, these summer weeks we’ve just journeyed through have felt more fraught than usual with weighty and concerning news headlines: the conflict in Ukraine, including the shot-down Malaysian airliner; the push-and-pull over the child immigrant crisis at our nation’s southern borders; and the deeply troubling and increasingly deadly situation in and around Gaza, which, of course, implicates the broader dynamic of Israeli-Palestinian relations. These have been the big-ticket headlines recently, but other situations and stories have merited our attention too: gun control, upcoming elections, Supreme Court decisions, and more.
What is the place of Christian faith in knowing how to respond to any of these things? What is the role of the church to interact (or not), speak out (or not), or otherwise respond (or not) to such situations?
Often, you will hear some people complain about the church getting ‘too political’. “I don’t come here to hear politics from the pulpit.” “Isn’t there supposed to be separation of church and state?… We should stay out of that, then.” “Don’t we have to be careful about what we do, lest we jeopardize our tax-exempt status?” But others, alternatively, think we should be bolder about our public witness, stronger in our advocacy of social justice, more courageous in following Jesus’ call to help build up God’s reign of mercy and peace here on earth.
I have a few thoughts that might contribute to the conversation around “how political” we are called to be as Christians individually and as the Church (both our individual congregation and the whole Church universal):
1.) It’s important to remember what the word political actually means, and that it isn’t the same as being partisan. At its most basic, what is political is anything that has to do with the polis, the “city” or the “body of citizens”. In other words, something is political when it has to do with the ways of life and wellbeing of the community and the society, whether locally or more broadly. (On the other hand, something becomes partisan when it is simply about being aligned with one faction, one ‘party’, or one group, solely for the interests or advancement of that particular group.)
2.) If being political is, at its core, to care about the way of life and wellbeing of the community, society, and world, then we have to recognize that a whole lot of what Jesus said and did was political—in fact, a good majority of it. Proclaiming good news to the poor, release for captives, and freedom to the oppressed… healing people in a time when disease also meant being ostracized from society… questioning the religious authorities and troubling the wealthy ones… staging subversive street theatre as his entry into Jerusalem makes a mockery of the civil authorities… all of it was ‘political’.
3.) We must also realize that, in keeping with this nature of Jesus’ ministry, even Jesus’ crucifixion itself was a punishment reserved for political subversives and enemies of the empire. As one of my own teachers, Theodore W. Jennings Jr., explores in his book Transforming Atonement (Fortress Press, 2009), if we want our thinking and speaking about the cross to make any sense in the modern world, then it has to be rooted in the true historical reality of what crucifixion was used for: “the execution of the enemies of Rome, and hence the enemies of empire and military rule” (p. 12). Therefore any thinking about the cross—which includes our own calling and vocation as disciples of Jesus whom he bids to ‘take up their cross and follow him’—“entails coming into confrontation with the principalities and powers that seek to rule the earth” (p. 17).
4.) And, let’s just be clear, caring about the ways of society and community as a matter of faith didn’t just start with Jesus. The Hebrew faith expressed in the Old Testament was rooted in a profound concern for the ordering of society, including mercy for the disadvantaged. While a lot of the old Hebrew law code seems strange to us today, in the midst of all those ritual requirements, you’ll find commandments that put a limit on financial oppression, establish practices of redistribution, set out protections for aliens, and more.
These are just the beginnings of a few points I might raise about how our faith intersects with “the political”. The truth is, the teachings of Jesus at the witness of our faith tradition point toward particular practices in the world having to do with economic justice, care of the creation, and perhaps most importantly attending to and even privileging the needs of the oppressed and the underdog. In as much as we are called to “witness to the hope that is within us”, witnessing to the reign of God with its reordered priorities will be a part of that witness. In as much as we are called to “take up our cross” and follow Jesus, sometimes being in conflict with some people’s opinions and with the positions of the ‘powers that be’ will be a part of that. Is that being “political”? I don’t know… but it is being faithful!
Yours in the journey,