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,” 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,” 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.”
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.
In that moment, God calls forth “a distinct community with an alternative identity rooted theologically and exhibited ethically,” as Brueggemann puts it.
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.”