Sunday, November 11, 2012
A Post-Election Sermon on Faith and Politics
We've been working our way through a sermon series entitled Tough Issues, helping people think about faith and science, suffering, the Bible's tough texts, etc. Today the theme was faith and politics, timely after the US election last week. My biblical texts were Psalm 72:1-4, 12-14; Matthew 5:3-10; Ephesians 1:19-23. If you'd rather listen to it than read the text, this link will take to you to our church's podcast site. It has been a blessed week for me, preparing this sermon. I have very strong political opinions but I have never felt more strongly that we have to find a better way to agree to disagree on political matters. Our Christian witness has never felt more fragile and if we have any hope to make a positive impression on the politics of our world, we must learn to respect one another and come away from the vitriol that has so damaged the democratic process in the United States. Thank you for your interest. I hope it will be a blessing to you.
Here we are, gathered to worship God, on the Sunday following a difficult and hard fought battle for the Presidency of the United States of America. And we have gathered today to talk about faith and politics. We have also gathered today to worship God, on Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day (also known as Poppy Day or Armistice Day) is a memorial day observed in Commonwealth countries since the end of World War I to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. This day, is also recognized as a special day for war remembrances in many non-Commonwealth countries. Remembrance Day is observed on the 11th of November to recall the end of hostilities of World War I on this date in 1918. Hostilities formally ended "at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month," in accordance with the Armistice, signed by representatives of Germany and the Entente. World War I officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. The 11th of November was specifically dedicated by King George V on the 7th of November 1919 as a day of remembrance for members of the armed forces who were killed during World War I.
I suppose nothing could be more appropriate when discussing religion and politics than to remember the lives that have been lost in the wars of our world and to give full consideration to the priority of peace that I genuinely feel is central to our gospel. Because at their worst, politics polarize and often bring out the worst in people. Politics can create sharp divisions among people and create a mood of acrimony and distrust. But at their best, politics help us to think more clearly about what we value, about what we stand for. For a democracy to thrive, there must be politics because in order for a democracy to thrive, people must be allowed their opinions and invited to participate in the process. But let me also say that while politics and faith have something to do with one another, they don't have everything to do with one another.
I am not here this morning to espouse a particular way of thinking or to persuade you to join a particular political movement. In fact, years ago, a favorite evangelical author named Tony Campolo wrote a book entitled “Was Jesus a Democrat or a Republican?” And the answer, of course, was neither. What is useful for us to consider are some of the complexities that we encounter when we begin to think about politics with faith as our background. Additionally, I feel that we are called to be engaged in public life but that does not mean that all Christians everywhere must ultimately share the same perspective. In many ways, Christians should be the leaders in how to have vigorous yet civil debate. We should be able to model well how to agree to disagree while allowing ourselves to be sharpened by one another's views and perspectives. I do believe that we can come to a better understanding of what it means to take our faith into the realm of politics and learn to think more critically about who God wants us to be as we engage society on the various social issues of our time, while accepting that our roads to achieving the desired outcomes may differ sharply.
Most importantly for me is to affirm that Jesus is Lord of all but to not simply passively yield to that reality by adopting a kind of fatalistic way of thinking. The former president of North Park Theological Seminary, Dr. Jay Phelan, expresses his concern over simply declaring that no matter happens in the political sphere, Jesus is still Lord and King without considering the consequences of disengaging on this principle alone. He writes, “Over the last few weeks Christian friends, liberal and conservative, have attempted to proactively console themselves by suggesting we remember that whoever wins the election, “Jesus is still King and God is still on the throne.” Well, OK. But excuse me if I don’t find this particularly consoling. The problem with this bit of pious rhetoric is that it implies it doesn’t matter how we vote. No matter who wins “God is still on the throne” and, evidently, in control of things to such an extent that nothing bad can happen. But Jesus was king and God was still on the throne when the extraordinarily foolish and ostensibly Christian rulers of Great Britain, France, German, Austria and Russia plunged the world into the bloodbath we now call World War I. Jesus was king and God was still on the throne when Lenin led a successful Communist revolution in Russia. Jesus was king and God was still on the throne when Stalin starved and butchered his own people and when Hitler’s Germany shot, gassed and starved Europe’s Jews. Jesus was king and God was still on the throne when Harry Truman made the ghastly decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course, the gruesome litany of murderous and foolish decisions made by leaders could be extended to the present day. Names like Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Bosnia and Iraq continue to haunt our dreams. Claiming comfort from Jesus-is-still-king-and-God-is-still-on-the-throne risks our becoming passive and indifferent in the face of difficult decisions. Standing idly or smugly by, shrugging our shoulder in the face of defeat or victory is not a sign of spiritual maturity but spiritual blindness. It does not amount to stoic acceptance but sheer irresponsibility. The fact is that God has empowered us, his creatures, his people, to work for the healing of the world or press forward in its destruction. The God of the Bible is frequently frustrated with his people’s failures to live up to his commands and follow his ways. He starts the world over with Noah and threatens to do so with Moses. He rages over Israel’s infidelity (see Hosea) and warns of impending judgment. He does not force the kings or the people to do what is right and good. He rather warns them of the outcome of disobedience. The world is not running on an auto-pilot set by God—quite the contrary. Although God will redeem and renew the world, it is now in the not always particularly capable hands of flawed human beings. It is also in the hands of the church. Our gospel, our compassion, our hope, our love are supposed to make the world a different, saner, more beautiful, more just place—tasks the church has frankly botched. But for whatever reason, God has entrusted us with his world. What we do matters. We can make the world a better or much, much worse place.”
What Dr. Phelan is urging us to do is to hold in tension the reality that Jesus-is-still-king-and-God-is-still-on-the-throne but not allow that truth to let us sit idly by while our societies act in ways that completely undermine the gospel. The real question for us is perhaps this: how do we hold in balance the shaping of our societies with values we hold dear while understanding that the role of government is not necessarily to create a more Christian society? And more importantly, how can we as individual Christians and as a church, seek to fulfill our gospel calling by acting in ways that government cannot or will not? I believe that we can all agree that our gospel, our compassion, our hope, our love are supposed to make the world a different, saner, more beautiful, more just place. We can all affirm that our hope does not lie in world leaders but rather on Christ himself who is indeed Lord over all. But this does not mean that every event, every decision, every course of action that unfolds in our world points to it being God's will for our world. And our engagement with the world should always be to promote in clearer and more concrete ways the love of God in Christ, which must include speaking out against societal evils. Phelan finishes his article by saying that “our involvement in this world, for good or ill, matters. Our attempts to be agents of healing and justice, matter. Our votes matter. We are partners in what the Jews call tikkun olam—the healing of the world.” But we must also remember that at the end of every political battle ever waged, the bottom line for Christians is simply this: Whoever sits on the political thrones of our world should not make one bit of a difference in our obligation to follow Jesus. Some leaders perhaps make our task more difficult, but even so, no political power should ever undermine our ability to pursue our faith in Christ in real and concrete ways in our societies.
At the heart of where our faith meets our politics is to realize that political decisions affect all of humanity and as Christ-followers, we are called to seek to justice, show compassion, and watch out for the poor and marginalized of our societies. The best way to achieve these outcomes is disputable. That's why we have vigorous debate and differing political philosophies, one not necessarily more Christian than another. But we must realize that political decisions affect how countries tax their citizens, how money is spent, what kind of things will be legal or illegal, how the poor and disenfranchised get taken care of or not. We must ask ourselves, which political trajectory, in our opinion, more deeply supports or aggravates the kind of society that I believe Christ wants us to live in? Here our faith informs our politics. So for instance, as we read the Beatitudes, these beautiful verses that start the sermon on the mount, have we considered how they inform our political philosophy? We need to ponder how the poor and those who mourn, the humble and those hungry for justice, along with those who show mercy and have pure hearts and work for peace are particularly blessed. We must consider how our politics reflect the virtues in the sermon on the mount. For in doing so, we begin to understand how our faith can inform our politics. We are hard-pressed to get clear directives from scripture regarding social issues. But Jesus has given us a framework from which we can test our ideologies and think critically about how to achieve the kingdom on earth that he longs for. Don't mistake me. It is not only through our politics that Christ's vision can be obtained. Hardly. But the challenge for us as Christians is to seek to test what Christ has given us as Biblical principles against our political philosophies and then to align those choices when possible. And even among the most sincere Christians, there will be sharp disagreements about how to apply what we learn in Scripture to our political philosophies. And perhaps that is why I lifted up the role of peace in this process above all else. Friends, we are not called to always agree on social and political issues, but we are called to live in peace with one another. To accept our differences and respect that there are different ways of thinking about important matters. We must walk away from the name calling and the questioning of one's sincerity as a follower of Christ based on political alignments. Because the manner in which our faith informs our politics is important but not ultimate. What is ultimate is the unity of the body of Christ and the witness that we share within society. Learning to disagree with respect and appreciation is just as important as considering the ways in which God's word and your own faith journey inform your political thinking. Thomas Jefferson once said “I have never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” If the Christian community cannot lead by example with this commitment, then our faith will not matter to the world around us anyway.
Finally, we must be careful to not place the mantle of Christian on a particular political ideology. My own country has been most egregious when it comes to creating these alignments. It is wrong to empirically state that any one political philosophy is more Christian than another. There is no one political system in our world that is a clear reflection of the Christian life. You can believe that certain aspects of a political platform support a value that you have based on your faith or you can embrace a certain political ideology because it more clearly reflects the way in which you believe God wants us to be engaged in society, but we must be very cautious to label these politics Christian. For in doing so, we set up divisions between people because we are subtlety saying to others, if your beliefs and priorities don't match mine, then clearly, you are not as Christian as I am, and really, what could be a more ridiculous accusation than that? This kind of thinking returns us to the judgmental spirit that we all know only hurts the church in society and makes the church look foolish.
Friends, I believe we should have strong political opinions and be engaged in the political process because Christ has called us to live in our world and make a difference. And our faith in Christ should deeply inform the ways we think about politics. And yet, we must also remember that no matter what political system is in place, we always have a responsibility to reflect the deep longings of the prophet Micah when he says, “He has told you, what the Lord requires of thee...do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” As our faith informs our politics, let us never lose sight of the most significant calling we have, and that is to love God and to love others. Even those with whom we may sharply disagree. Amen.