Friday, December 03, 2004

Politics and Pulpits

A friend of mine told me the other day about her recent trip to Italy, and of a group in Naples asking what the American churches thought about the war and the present policies of the American government. My friend said she listened as one U.S. Presbyterian leader told the Italians that most American Protestant churches don’t talk too much about politics.
On the other hand, last summer ABC News did a poll about the church and politics and headlined its results as “Most Americans Think Church Should Steer Clear of Politics.” Their survey suggested that two-thirds of Americans believe the church should not try to influence political decisions.
Of course, the same Google search that found that factoid turned up more than six million hits under “church and politics” or “pulpits and politics.” Clearly, there’s a connection between the church, the pulpit and politics, and, just as clearly, that relationship is muddled.
One of the great gifts the progressive church could offer to the wider church and culture is some clarity on this relationship between church and politics, especially in this time of deep divisions in our nation’s political life. Perhaps we have something of value to offer in response to the questions that must press in on us given the church’s troubled history of disastrous romances with political power.
These pressing questions seem quite obvious: should the church be involved in politics at all and, if so, how? But in fact, the obvious questions call forth nothing short of rethinking both the church and politics.
We could simply turn away from the political arena altogether. There are some, particularly in more conservative evangelical congregations, who believe the church should focus exclusively on questions of salvation, and they define salvation in purely spiritual, largely individualistic terms.
Against that spirit, we have the image Karl Barth famously articulated of the faithful pastor being one who held the Bible in one hand and the morning paper in the other. Today, perhaps, one should blog with the Bible in hand!
But even if we remain informed and faithful citizens – guided by a Biblical tradition as we respond to the news of the day – we could limit our scope of work to worship, weddings, funerals, Bible study, blanket drives for the homeless, food drives for the poor and clothing drives for the destitute. These are surely important parts of who we are as church, and some feel that such work marks the extent of our calling as church.
Against that vision of church, I would ask, if we are to care for families in their times of joy and of mourning, should we not also care for their situations in the broader community? And if we are to care for the homeless, should we not also care for the medical and economic and social conditions that lead to homelessness? If we care enough to feed the hungry, do we not care enough to work for an end to hunger? If we are called to care for the destitute of the city, are we not also called to care for the ordering of the city itself when that ordering leaves so many struggling on the city’s margins? If we are to be minister of reconciliation, should we not also be engaged in resolving conflicts?
Obviously, if we do such work we will be deeply engaged in politics.
Now I have friends in the community organizing world who like to say that if you come to the bottom of a cliff and find a rising stack of broken bodies, you need to go to the top of the mountain, find out who is throwing people over the edge and put a stop to it. That’s the work of doing justice, they will argue, and it is the only faithful response to injustice.
Surely they are correct, although, just as surely, someone must stay at the base of the cliff and care for the wounded. That is the work of compassionate charity. Both jobs are crucial, and both are the work of the church.
Of course, one organizer told me last week about trying to invite an evangelical congregation into a faith-based community organization and being told by the pastor, “if you begin by talking about justice, you will lose the people.” Obviously, we’ve got some language barriers.
But we have some deeper barriers of vision. A church that works only on broad issues of justice lacks roots in the lives of suffering people in the community. But a vision of church that focuses only on the work of charity to the exclusion of the work of justice is deficient, for, as important as charitable work is, charity is an inadequate response to systemic injustice.
And the truth is, no matter how you slice these distinctions, every church is always already engaged in politics anyway. The question is, will we pretend to turn away from politics and thereby bless the status quo – itself a political gesture; or will we engage in a politics of compassion that seeks to change unjust systems themselves?
Churches tie themselves into knots over these questions in part, I am convinced, because most of us these days have an impoverished understanding of politics.
For most Americans, it seems, politics refers only to partisan elections and partisan bickering in Congress, statehouses and city halls. People of faith ought to understand politics in the terms the word originally reflected: the arrangement of the polis, or the ordering of the city.
Scripture refers to the city almost one thousand times, and to the public square dozens of times. Clearly, God is concerned with the welfare of the city, and God calls people of faith to witness to that same concern precisely in the midst of the public square.
When Isaiah says, “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter,” (Isa. 59:14) he is not calling on the people to sit idly by and accept an unjust status quo. Indeed, as soon as the judgment is announced, Isaiah pronounces this: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and God’s glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and rulers to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa. 60:1-3).
A faithful politics involves the working out of justice in the public square, and the church is called to be a faithful partner to that process. I am convinced that precisely such visible witness in the public square was what Jesus had in mind when he said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matt. 5:14-15).
This is no easy task. As William Sloan Coffin said, “It is one thing to say with the prophet Amos, ‘Let justice roll down like mighty waters,’ and quite another to work out the irrigation system. Clearly there is more certainty in the recognition of wrongs than there is in the prescription for their cure.”
Likewise, it is one thing to respond to Jesus’ call to be the light of the world, and it is another thing altogether to work out the wiring for a world that dwells in deep darkness.
It is an error – legally, strategically and theologically – for the church to tie itself to one irrigation contractor, to one electrician, to any partisan official, candidate or political party.
* It’s an error legally because the tax exemption churches enjoy under the United States tax code depends on the church not endorsing candidates, and the pastor not telling the congregation how to vote. I think many on the religious right overstepped those bounds by a long-shot in the run-up to last month’s presidential election. Jerry Falwell, whose ministry is always more lightening rod than light, has come in for particular criticism.
* It’s an error strategically because good irrigation plans for the waters of justice can arise from many partisan quarters, and sometimes you find more light coming from the least expected party. It does the church’s purpose no service to be bound to a single partisan perspective for then we begin to fight for power rather than for justice.
* It’s an error theologically because God calls us to bind ourselves to God’s purposes and never to the purposes of the powers and principalities even when they may, in any given moment, be working toward the same goals.
Binding the church to a political party is heresy, as the Barman Declaration suggests, and it is the heresy imbedded in Pat Robertson’s recent claims that President Bush is particularly blessed by God and called to be president at this moment in history. For although Robertson denies it, there is a clear and persistent subtext to his comments that suggests one cannot be a Christian without also being a Republican.
God is not a Republican … or a Democrat, and neither is the church of Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, the church is called to speak boldly in the public square, and thus we are called in this highly partisan period of American history to reimagine politics, to cast a vision of the city that reflects the deepest values of our faith, and to develop new ways of working for that vision that also reflect those core values.
I would like to see people of faith explore a “politics of compassion.” James Carroll, in a recent Boston Globe essay, speaks of a “politics of love,”[1] saying, with W. H. Auden, “we must love one another or die.”
Of course, these are slogans or catch phrases and not anything like a fully realized politics, but they do point toward a foundational truth that the church has, at its best, proclaimed throughout its existence: that another world is possible.
When Isaiah said that truth had stumbled in the public square, he did so in order to proclaim that the Babylonian captivity was the present reality but it was not the only possible future. Isaiah used the prophetic pulpit as a “testimony to otherwise,”[2] and to call the people to a moment of decision.
It would be all too easy, the path of least resistance to be sure, for the captives to choose assimilation, to lose their culture and surrender their identity to the empire. Thus Isaiah offers words of consolation – “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). But also words of challenge that come in the form of a call to witness, to offer testimony to the fact that the empire is not inevitable, that, indeed, another world is possible. This witness is crucial, argues Walter Brueggemann, for “where there is no speaking and hearing of an alternative world, there is no faith, no courage, no freedom to choose differently, no community of faith apart from and even against the empire.”[3]

Which is to say, “where there is no vision, and no one to give voice to that vision, the people perish.” The vision the church is called to articulate to the world is one of an open future in which we can imagine that outcasts are welcomed, the poor are lifted up, the voiceless are heard.
Some call the church in North America in our time an exile community, and when we answer the believer’s calling to be peacemakers during a time of war, it can certainly feel that way. I know the sting of backlash from speaking out against the war – indeed, I was forced out of a church once for speaking out on the rights of gays and lesbians. But I believe our situation is less like that confronting Isaiah and more akin to the one Joshua faced.
When Joshua declares, “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord,” he speaks to an affluent, comfortable community that is in danger of sacrificing its identity to the idols of the surrounding culture.
That sounds so much like the church in North America in our time. The nation is remarkably affluent and powerful militarily and economically beyond all reason, and the church is too often complacently cozy with the powers that be in the American empire.
The people before Joshua faced a moment of decision: they could continue to participate in the Canaanite economy and allow it to “work unfettered so that the rich become richer,” or call themselves back to the Mosaic law of jubilee and debt relief. They could “let legitimate authority run loose in self-serving acquisitiveness,” or imagine politics otherwise with Moses’ instructions for a different kind of leadership based on covenant community. They could turn to hyper-individualism or imagine a politics and economy that gave flesh to Moses’ concern for the alien, the widow and the orphan.[4]

At the moment of decision, Joshua declares, “choose this day whom you will serve.”
In that moment, God calls forth “a distinct community with an alternative identity rooted theologically and exhibited ethically,” as Brueggemann puts it.[5]

We are called today, as the church – progressive, inclusive and diverse – to respond to that same declaration and to give voice to that same testimony: the church’s present captivity to the culture of consumption, of domination and of empire is every bit as threatening to the community of faith and to the purposes of God as was the Babylonian captivity. Another world is possible. The future is not cast in stone, and we are called, as church, to embody an alternative community of hope and belovedness and to articulate a clear vision of a broader politics grounded in this hope.
We will ground this vision in our understanding of the God who created the world, who loves us still, and calls us to a ministry of reconciliation amidst the brokenness of a world that has turned away from the God of love to worship other gods.
Where the culture worships material goods and succumbs to consumerism, we will offer compassion and cast a vision for a politics that focuses on care and concern for the least powerful citizens. Where the culture offers domination, our community of compassion will model cooperation and cast a vision for a politics that draws in more voices from across this community and that silences no one. Where the culture trembles in the face of an empire of fear, we will cast of vision of the kingdom of God, the household of belovedness in which we sing praises to the God of hope. We will cast on God all our fears, and fearlessly proclaim that yes, another world is possible.
Now there will never be ballot initiatives that offer you the option to “vote yes for the kingdom of God.” And there will never be a candidate on the ballot whose victory will usher in the beloved community. That does not mean “don’t vote.”
It means that voting is just the beginning. Now that the votes have been counted – at least most of them – it’s time for the work of real politics – the work of ordering the city – to begin. The political work of people of faith is more important today than it was before November 2.
Most progressives were deeply disappointed last month, but now we most hold the victors accountable to a vision of justice and a politics of love and hope.
Maybe next time my friend is in Italy and someone asks about the church and politics, she will be able to answer truthfully, “we don’t just talk about politics at my church, we do it and renew it every chance we get.”

[1] James Carroll, “A Politics of Love” in the Boston Globe, Oct. 18, 2004.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Testimony to Otherwise (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001).

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] This paragraph condenses Brueggemann’s analysis in ibid. 19-21.

[5] Ibid., 6.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

American Heresies

How’s this for a sensitive, caring approach to Advent? Preach on the all-but-ignored Marine murder of unarmed Iraqi prisoners. Perhaps one could tie that together with the now all-but-forgotten scandal of prisoner abuse in Iraq! Nothing says, “Merry Christmas” like images of helpless prisoners shot or nude prisoners abused.
But no matter how much we may want to look at shepherds and angels and virgins kneeling beside a manger, if we are going to respond faithfully to the call to embody a vision of progressive Christian faith, if we are going to engage with the concerns of this world and bring faith to bear on what most troubles our time, then, no matter how much we may want to, we cannot turn away from such images.
For the video images, photographs and the official responses to the ongoing catastrophe reveal what amounts to heresies at the heart of American foreign policy, and at the root of some of the responses to it in the Arab world. The disaster in Iraq is political, strategic, cultural and moral, and it is also theological.
The pictures themselves, of course, are more than appalling. I can only begin to imagine the suffering they represent, and the suffering they will cause. While much of our inside-the-beltway mindset in the part of the country where I live focuses on the political fallout – which has been almost nil – my first thought looking at the images is of the families of those pictured – both Arab and American families, and what those images must mean to them.
What those pictures may come to mean in a broader sense, and what broad meanings are already being ascribed to them is significant because such meaning will certainly impact policies in the near term. But I’m not sure any broad meaning assigned to the images will be particularly accurate.
For what strikes me most in these images is, to recall Hannah Arendt’s classic phrase about Adolf Eichmann and Nazi atrocities: the banality of evil. These pictures remind me of the pictures of Saddam Hussein crawling out of his rat hole. Hussein – a man accused and no doubt guilty of authorizing the killings of tens of thousands of people and held up for the world as the monstrous representation of evil – turns out to be just a scared old man cowering in a hole – the picture of banality.
And now, American soldiers – held up for the world as the picture of a nation’s virtue, “an army of God raised up for such a time as this,” in the words of one American general[1] – are captured on film in a series of actions that look much like Nazi executions and the horrors of sadistic hazing rituals. American soldiers off-handedly saying, “now he’s dead,” or hamming it up next to the bound, nude bodies of prisoners – again, the picture of banality.
The official response to the evil portrayed in these pictures is one that Arendt would quickly recognize, full, as it is, of stock phrases about American values. As she said so clearly, “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality.”[2]
In addition to that function, they have the further effect of leading us deep into heresy, for denying reality, denying this world is a classic heresy.
Being something of a heretical thinker myself, heresy is not a word I toss around lightly. But, as these stories played out in the news, I have been struck again and again by the heresy at the heart of much of the response to these images.
It is not the job of the church to correct the state’s political and military strategies, but it is most certainly our job to correct errors of theology.
And there are fundamental theological errors – indeed, heresies from the perspective of orthodox Christian theology – at the foundation of the response to these images from both the American and Arab perspectives.
Some in the Arab world, perhaps to further enflame violence against Americans, would have people believe that the images give a complete picture of America. They would reduce us all to the hateful actions of a few of us, and then demand an eye-for-an-eye retribution aimed at all Americans.
Unfortunately, that strategy works all too well, as we can hear in responses such as the the Jordanian businessman who said, “exterminating the Americans is the best way to fight international terrorism,”[3] the Syrian woman who said, “Americans are showing their true image,” the Arab editor who said, “the liberators are worse than the dictator,” and the Egyptian writer who said, “[now] the whole world sees them as they really are.”[4]
How are we, really? Radical anti-Americanism blinds some in the Arab world to the fundamental theological truth that we are all beloved children of the same God – created good in the image of a loving God according to Genesis. This is true of both Arab and American; both prisoner and prison guard. To deny that reality to Americans – as radical Muslim fundamentalists do when they refer to America as the great Satan – is heretical.
On the other hand, in the face of these pictures, President Bush said that “what took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know. The America I know is a compassionate country that believes in freedom.” Elsewhere, the President said, “our soldiers in uniform are honorable, decent, loving people.”
But just as some in the Arab world are wrong when they choose to believe only the very worst about America because of the actions of some Americans, the President is wrong when he paints a picture of this nation in such rosy terms. There is deep and profound danger in both of these errors, and both are flip sides of the same theological coin.
When President Bush takes the same broad brush used by those who hate America and dips it into rose-colored paint, he denies another fundamental theological truth that Paul expresses so clearly: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
The truth is, as the Biblical image of humanity makes clear, that each of us is some strange and volatile mixture of the angels of our better natures and our own profound brokenness. Two of the pictures from last spring in particular captured this truth for me. They were a pair of pictures of the same young American woman in Iraq. In one of them she is smiling as she hugs a young Iraqi child. In the other she is smiling as she stands behind a pile of bound, nude Iraqi men.
So, which is she: “an honorable, decent, loving” young woman or a “great Satan”?
Not knowing this young woman, I would not pretend to offer an answer about her individual nature. But about all of us, we do well to recall the words of the psalmist, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51: 3-5). While in the very same moment we must remember also that the psalmist says, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
The young American soldier in those two pictures, along with all of the rest of us, are both of these things: those who transgress, and those who are wonderfully made. And we live, all of us, somewhere east of Eden.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said that we must develop the capacity to forgive, for without that we cannot claim the power to love. Forgiveness begins, he said, when we recognize that the evil actions of our enemies do not express all that our enemies are. This simply means, he said, “within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good.”[5]
King’s vision, which seeks as its goal forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration, stands in stark contrast with the notion, given voice by the leader of our nation, that we are engaged in a war to “rid the world of evil.”[6] This vision, which animates current American policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world, seeks as its goal the imposition of American notions of virtue by force of American arms in the belief that America can rid the world of evil.
Alas, as James Carroll said, “evil, whatever its primal source, resides, like a virus in its niche, in the human self. There is no ridding the world of evil for the simple fact that, shy of history’s end, there is no ridding the self of it.”[7]
Indeed, the notion that this nation, or any nation – no matter how nobly conceived or dedicated – could of its own actions rid the world of evil is perhaps the fundamental heresy upon which so much of our current foreign policy rests.
We cannot rid the world of evil when we so clearly participate in it ourselves. We cannot; any more than we can bring justice to the world by means of an unjust war; any more than we can bring democracy to the world by means of a war that the vast majority of the world’s people oppose; any more than we can bring liberation to the world by means of a war that increasingly leaves the people of Iraq imprisoned by violence and chaos. And the further into the morass of this war we go, the more we become like the very thing we hate.
Some 35 years ago, Dr. King said that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”[8]
Lost amidst the news of photos and videos from Iraq last spring, and then all but absent from the presidential campaign through to election day, was any discussion of the request for the additional $25 billion to cover costs of the war through the end of the fiscal year.
Now, it may not be the job of the church to correct the state’s political and military strategies, but just as it is our job to correct errors of theology, it is also quite clearly our role to warn of the approach of spiritual death.
In the present case, the two are so closely related. We lie and deceive ourselves at peril to our souls. We follow the false gods of power and security, and develop theologies of nationalism to honor them, and we wonder how it is that we become the very thing that we hate.
Theology matters. Show me your image of God, and I will show you your image of humanity. From those images of God and humanity grow the strategies of nations. And when those images are skewed by heresies, and those strategies perverted by false premises, from them develop the images that now dominate our news.
The church’s complacency in the midst of this is shattered – or should be – as we realize that amidst the howls of anguish and anger rising in response to the horrors still coming forth from Saddam Hussein’s notorious old prison, nowhere do we hear the voice of the one who said, “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Nowhere do we hear the voice of the one who said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Nowhere do we hear the voice of the one who said, “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate” (Luke 6:36).
Much else lies shattered in these days of broken bodies and broken trust. Beyond pointing out the lies and deceptions of American heresies, let the church hear again its age-old calling to be repairers of the breach.
[1] The words are those of Army Lt. General William Boykin, President Bush’s deputy undersecretary for intelligence who said to a church group, “We are an army of God raised up for such a time as this.” That speech was quoted widely. I cite this from “Abuse Photos Undermine Bush’s Religious Rhetoric,” Don Lattin, San Francisco Chronicle, May 7, 2004.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Life of Mind - Thinking - Willing (New York-London: Ed. Harvest/HJB Book, 1978), 4.
[3] See “Shooting of Injured Man Captures Arab Attention,” at
[4] Quoted by Juan Cole, “Arab Reaction to Photos of Prison Abuse”, May 1, 2004.
[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” a sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Nov. 17, 1957, posted as in the public domain on As with many of Dr. King’s great phrases, he used this, or almost identical language in many speeches.Montgomery, Alabama, 17 November 1957. Strength to Love
[6] President Bush, speaking at prayer service at the National Cathedral on Sept. 13, 2001, said “Our responsibility to history is already clear: To answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”
[7] James Carroll, “Bush’s War Against Evil,” Boston Globe, July 8, 2003.
[8] Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence,” an address delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, included in A Testament of Hope, ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: Harper, 1986) 241.