Monday, June 26, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 1

And now, for something completely different. Or, maybe not.
For the next eight weeks or so I'm turning this spot over to Jamie Pitts (more on Jamie below -- and, yes, we will have to get the man a good nom de blog!) He will be the primary poster for an on-line "class" the centers on the Bible and politics. I'll continue to chime in, and sometimes I'll actually address that topic, although I promise to remain steadfast in my randomness. In any case, here's the first post from Jamie, and may a rich conversation begin:

From President Bush’s speeches, to recent Democrat efforts to learn ‘religious language,’ the use of the Bible in American political discourse is a contentious topic. Some say the Bible and politics have nothing to do with each other: either the Bible has nothing to say about politics, or our church and state policies prohibit such a mixture.

Others argue that the Bible can only be corrupted by politicians who invariably twist it to their own agendas. Proponents of this view often call on the church—the only organization, they feel, that can legitimately use the Bible—to engage in the ‘prophetic’ task of resisting status quo politics; some see this resistance coming through local communities that demonstrate an alternative politics, others through active revolt against the prevailing authorities.

Another approach sees little problem with using the Bible in American politics. After all, some argue, America is a ‘Christian nation’; biblical rhetoric can only call the nation back to its roots. Others in this camp are more cautious in speaking of America’s Christian identity, but still maintain that Christians can and should use biblical language in political discourse, since that language is (or should be) the foundation of their political views.

What are we to make of such confusion? Perhaps, if you’re like me, you throw up your hands in exasperation and decide that not using the Bible in political discourse is better than using it badly—or at least than using it when we’re not really sure how to do it correctly. That’s an easy stance when most of what passes for political discourse consistently mangles the Bible, clearly illustrating concerns about political manipulation of biblical language. But then, occasionally, you may find yourself passionately agreeing with a certain politician’s use of the Bible: a quotation about God’s justice to support a program for the poor; a verse on God’s love to advocate for more inclusive policy. What do we do then? Do we hold to a principle of separation of church and state? Or do we applaud the ‘right’ use of the Bible, at least just this once?

In this class I hope that we can explore a few of the issues surrounding this dense topic. We’ll look at some historical and contemporary uses of the Bible in American politics to get a feel for the context we’re working with. Then we’ll examine some of the places in the Bible itself where scriptures are quoted in ‘political’ contexts; Jesus’ use of Jeremiah and Isaiah to condemn the temple (Mark 11:17) is one prominent example. Finally, we’ll look at some of what theologians and philosophers are saying about religious language in public discourse, a non-technical examination of some of the positions mentioned above. This is only a rough plan for what we’ll be talking about in the next 8 weeks; my hope is that your questions and comments will lead us in new directions.

A note about the word ‘politics’ as used in this class: I am convinced that everything we do as the body of Christ is ‘political’ in nature, that is, it witnesses to the social life that all humans are called to in some degree or another. Thus, simple acts like communion or baptism can be powerful statements of economic solidarity and the inclusion of society’s marginalized. The Bible seems to reflect this understanding of the church’s political nature when it calls the church a polis (Matthew 5:14), a common Greek word for city, and an ecclesia (Matthew 18:17, among others), a Greek word used for political assemblies.

In common parlance, however, we use ‘politics’ to refer to what local, state, national, and international governments do. For most of us the mayor and the president do politics, not the pastor, and certainly not us when we gather on a Sunday morning (or Friday night, or whenever).

One goal I have for this class is that we would think through how we use the term ‘politics.’ Do we believe the church’s internal practices are really political? If not, why not? But in the meantime, let’s try to be sensitive to the linguistic issues involved in discussing faith and politics. In the paragraphs above I tried to walk the line, discussing the Bible’s use in ‘American politics.’ This phrase isn’t completely satisfying, but I hope it conveys that what we are mainly talking about is the Bible’s use in the politics that happen outside of the faith community.

A note about the class: I am very grateful to David for allowing me to teach this class on his blog. I hope that the same openness and care that seem to characterize his ministry can be at work in this class. In other words, I look forward to a gentle, honest exchange of deeply held beliefs about tough matters. I pray that our unity in faith would transcend disagreement, that we would be a true family of sisters and brothers—even if we disagree with each other, we have to stick together!

Logistically speaking, there’s not much to say. I’ll post new ‘lectures’ every Sunday evening for the next 8 weeks, and then we can discuss throughout the week. I’ll close each lecture with some questions to facilitate discussion, but please feel free to ignore them! I’ll also try to put up some bibliographic information for those interested in further reading.

For those of us in the DC area, we’ll be trying to get together for a couple of brunches. Details will be posted ASAP.

A note about me: I am just graduating from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California with a Masters in Divinity. The MDiv degree is pretty broad, but I tried to tie together theological and philosophical ethics with studies in Anabaptist theology. A focus for me in theology and politics is US-Mexico border culture and policy, and I have tried to write on those issues as much as possible. I’m also a musician, and I have played drums for several bands in LA and Austin, Texas (my hometown). I look forward to getting to know you all more in the coming weeks.


1) What is your immediate reaction to the phrase ‘Bible and politics’? Do you think the two should be forever separated? Forever united?

2) Is there any political speech that stands out in your memory for its use of the Bible? Any particular politician?

3) How do you feel about the description of the church as a political institution? Are the church’s ‘politics’ different in any way from other politics?


Christian Wright said...

CW says, "here's an excellent example of a creative use of scripture in politics:
It's a James Carrol piece on global warming and the Garden of Eden as prophecy.

Anonymous said...

From Suzanne - To me, when the bible is quoted in politics, it's used as a club to squash any other opinions instead of being a way to open up your thinking. I'd just as soon never see it used in politics.
As for politics in the church ... I've seen the same type of thing done. When serving on session (at a different church) it was actually said that if someone felt the budget was too high, then that person just didn't have enough faith. I can't tell you how much I loathe this kind of tactic. I guess that's why I hate politics of any sort.

Christian Wright said...

I’m getting prepared this morning to run out to a clergy caucus of the Industrial Areas Foundation faith-based community organizing effort. 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.
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. 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. We are called, after all, to the impossible. CW.

Anonymous said...

From James...I think the Bible, as an historical text, is a highly political document. So many stories center around actions that have political subtexts or implications. I see the Bible, in terms of a spiritual guidebook, as political only in the broadest sense. It teaches us how to behave, how to treat others, how to express ourselves, etc., which should influence our political actions and beliefs. Where I draw the line with the Bible and politics is with the idea that God has a specific political view that supposedly is revealed through the Bible. I think it is highly inappropriate and offensive to me when people contend that God believes this or that about a political issue -- it's trivializing the message of the Bible, like saying God wants a particular football team to win a game. Occasions in which I have found the Bible and politics intersecting in a comforting way generally have to do with higher messages of leadership, comfort or redemption. The remarks by Ronald Reagan (shudder...) at the time of the shuttle explosion were comforting and reflected broader themes of the Bible that are appropriate in my mind.
Regarding the church as a political institution, I find the Catholic church and the fundamentalist movements offensive in their politicizing. I think it is right for MEMBERS of a church who are inspired by the message of the Bible to express themselves in the political causes they support or oppose, but strong involvement by the church as an institution goes to close to the idea of suggesting that God has political views, in my mind.

Scott said...

Maybe God does have some political views. Probably not in terms of the callous debate that marks the us vs. them nature of our political scene. But I see Jesus' words and actions as profoundly political - in ways that grew out of spiritual principles and values. Jesus (and the Bible in general) had alot to say about an awful lot of politically charged issues: how we treat our neighbor, how we treat our enemies, how we treat children, the poor, minorities, anyone who could be called "the least", how do we treat God's planet, how do we treat our finances (both personal an national). The teachings of Jesus touch virtually every aspect of politics.
For me the danger lies in politicians using the Bible to further their own agendas.
But the call to the church is to let the Bible shape us so that our agendas reflect God's heart for the world.

Joel said...

I'm not sure what my thoughts are on this yet... On the one hand I see that culture is constantly moving and active and that either we get involved in its direction or abandon it altogether. Getting involved we have the chance to balance mere humanistic fads with unshifting scriptural truth. We also have the chance to steward God's gifts to us more deliberately and effectively. On the other hand, I think we run the risk of confusing gift with giver and directing our energies towards human battles and debates rather than kingdom priorities. Its an interesting tension that I look forward to being stimulated by over the next 8 weeks. The fact of the matter is that we will never achieve a state of utopia here on earth. That is a kingdom dynamic that NEEDS to be clear. If all of our attention is set upon social justice and earthly conditions then we run the risk of holding on too tightly to a mist or vapor that is fleeting (to say the very least). But, as previously stated, if the church is not putting legs on the specific directions and example of Christ then we leave those without truth to direct policy and change. So I'm living in the tension and looking forward to the ride... Plus Jamie Pitts is my hero.

wess said...

Great intro Jamie, the mixture of politics and religion have been at best confusing in America since the inception of the Constitution. It got worse in the late 1700's when we see great revival preachers using religion and patriotism to appeal to the American soul. The reaction against this is to say "Jesus has nothing to say about society." This is a poor understanding of the Gospel.

But it's also been bad lately when we see certain groups use the Bible to support their political gain. It doesn't seem to me that there is anything in the Gospel's that was supporting any political agenda. The only "political" agenda that being pushed was a kingdom one.

Oh and a question - why does it seem like the religious right uses and twists scripture for their gain waaaayy more then the left?

jamie said...

Interesting insights so far. It seems that there are a range of perspectives here, and I hope we can have some constructive discussion. Here are some thoughts that have been prompted by the previous comments:

1) Yes, the Bible is usually used very poorly in politics (within or outside of the church). But does that mean it has to be used poorly? Could we come up with an alternative use? What would such a use look like?

2) What does it mean to be a church 'member'? In a Western, individualized context, this seems to mean being an autonymous entity that chooses, now to relate to church, and nor to government. Is this what Paul meant by being members of a body? Or is there something about being part of a body that makes community and communion with others more foundational than individual actions?

3) To what extent are God's kingdom or reign and 'human society' exclusive categories? What do we mean when we pray for God's kingdom to come and will to be done on earth as it is in heaven?

4) By what grounds do we move from biblical injunctions for the people of God--i.e., communities expressely dedicated to following God--to recommending those injunctions to people who are not part of God's people? This is a problem I often encounter in some of the best of Christian social justice discourse. The Torah and the majority of the Bible's prophetic critique (including Jesus') is directed towards the community of God: Israel and the church. How do we get from that critique to a critique of communities outside of 'Israel' (using that term loosely) and the church?

5) Wess- I think part of the reason the right uses the Bible so much more poorly than the left is that the left doesn't really use it at all. But it is the left (at least the people who have historically stood for the kinds of things the left stands for now) that pioneered the use of the Bible in American politics: MLK, Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan (notwistanding his famed trial), and a host of others.
I heard a speech by Democratic Senator Barak Obama yesterday that seeks to address the very issue you're pointing out. He's trying to reclaim the languages of faith for a progressive politics that emphasizes the poor and marginalized. That sounds like a much more accurate reading of the Bible than that offered by the religious right! The fact that I can count on one hand the combined biblical references to abortion and homosexuality (and these can be debated)--when the words for 'justice' (a near technical term for caring for the poor and marginalized) are used close to 1500 times--says something to me about where our priorities ought to be.

Pierre Radulescu said...

Politics claims itself so often from the Bible. The revers is always true: Bible is always politics. Great is our Lord, and King over all other gods (Psalm 94/95). Peter was wearing a sword in the Gethsemany - does it mean that the group of Apostles was actually a military gang, mixed in all political battles among Judeean sects? Could be true, if we consider the Formgeschichte theory of Bultmann.

I am trying to say something about the Psalms - comparing various versions, in English and Romanian - I'm still at the beginning:

You should also have a look at

where I'm trying to understand the Sufi way (don't be scared - in a very large sense - I'm not considering switch to the Muslims :)

Coming back to the topics, Bible in the politics of today (and not politics of all times in the Bible) - I am afraid the Dems are controlled by a loose network of interest groups each with its own agenda (pro-choice, pro-gays, environmentalists, blogosphere, gun control, and the like). Each agenda is fine - only it remains little room for the vital interests of American society - the immigrants' issue is very important - the Chinese challenge is also much more important than any other issue. And so on.

I intend to order on the Amazon a book by Andrei Cherny - the name is "The next Deal" - I looked for it in all Washingtonian bookstores, without success - I found a copy on the Amazon for only 25 cents ! - I would like to see whether his views are what it's needed in the Democratic camp.

See you the following weekend - I'm leaving tomorrow for Boston, to my son and my granddaughters.

Hav fun and enjoy - Shalom

jamie said...

Pierre- The idea that Jesus and crew were a pack of violent revolutionaries was advanced forcefully by SGF Brandon about 50-60 years ago. His thesis rested on the very Bultmannian argument that the Gospel writers, Luke especially, were trying to hide a great bit of Christianity's origins in order to recommend it to Roman society at large. Nevertheless, that argument has now been almost entirely abandoned in biblical studies as there is no compelling evidence for such a hiding; on the contrary, the Gospel writers, Luke especially, seem to be go to great lengths to upbraid both Roman and Jewish authorities--hardly the strategy to take when trying to fit in! And as that argument goes, so goes the violent revolutionary thesis.
Nevertheless, others have argued, and I concur, that Jesus wrestled with the use of the sword, and that the identification of a few of his disciples as Zealots points towards a potential openness to violent means. But the passage you point out, in which Peter or another disciple wields the sword in Gethsemane (and he probably wasn't aiming for an ear!) provides Jesus with the opportunity he needs to make a definitive decision: 'no more of this!' (Luke 22:51). And so beings the journey to Jesus' most bold political statement: the cross. It is notable that, in Luke and the rest of the New Testament, it is the cross that characterizes the church's mission, not a conquest by means of the sword. It is 'the gospel of peace'(Acts 10:36-37) that takes the church into the heart of the Roman Empire, uniting Jews and Gentiles in a new, non-violent community.
At a more basic level, I would ask you to question the equation of politics with violence. If Jesus refused the means of violence that were surely expected of him and offered him, does this mean he was not political? Why, then, was Jesus killed?

On the Sufi deal, I am not overly familiar with Islam, but I have friends engaged in Muslim-Christian dialogues on peacemaking ('Abrahamic peacemaking') that seem to be very profitable.

Pierre Radulescu said...

Why was Jesus condamned to death? I think most would agree that the main reason was his strong critical atitude towards the establisment of his own religion and not a conflict with Rome - from this many would find reasons to be antisemithic. But Jesus would have been in conflict with any religious establisment - so we should find reasons not to be antisemithic, rather to understand dangers of formalism in any religion, also in our own life.

As for the Sufi stuff - I am not familiar with Islam either - I am using the term in my blog rather to understand a bit more how great God lovers from different spiritualities share some similarities, to understand a bit more their way - I am perfectly aware that I will not gain any further knowledge of Islam :)

I am now at Boston (actually near, at lexington) - at my son's family - I will stay here till July 4th.

jamie said...

My requisite get-lost-driving-home-for -two-hours (this time, I inadvertently drove to Baltimore) has postponed my work on this week's session. I'll get something up tomorrow morning/early afternoon.

Christian Wright said...

Lovely town, Baltimore.