Friday, August 26, 2016

How Politics & Religion Mix - 'Tis the Season #13

   Miss Manners taught that there are two subjects to avoid in polite conversation: religion and politics.  How might we dare to talk about both, and how they intersect?

   When we say religion has no business talking about politics, we overlook two important truths.  If we say Christianity should have nothing to say about politics, isn’t that a way of saying we support the way things are right now?  To say nothing is to give tacit approval to policies and politics as they are.  But the status quo needs some fixing – and we might prefer some Christian voice in the fixing.

   Secondly, if we say Christianity has nothing to say about politics, we are suggesting God doesn’t care, or God has nothing to say.  But God has strong opinions; God has much to say.

   God actually has spoken.  If we read the Bible at all seriously, we see political stuff everywhere.  Jim Wallis once gave out Bibles and scissors to his students, and asked them to cut out everything that speaks to issues we label political: poverty, immigration, the right to life, weapons, race, social justice, capital punishment, peace and war, rulers and governments.  What they had left was what he jokingly called “the Holey Bible” – the Old Testament laws, all the prophets, the Psalms, Jesus’ teachings, the book of Acts and many of Paul’s letters left in ribboned shreds.  Since God created and cares deeply for everything in the world, we would expect God to have vested interests, and holy authority, in what happens in politics.

   Tony Campolo wondered what it would be like if we had a new political movement – called Red Letter Christians,

those who take their cues, not from the politicians or pundits, but from the words of Jesus, those old-timey Bibles highlighted with red letters.  Who tells us what to think?  Jesus.  Red Letter Christians can be Republican or Democrat – and hopefully both.  They can and should be the “leaven” in the world; they “should be the ultimate swing vote, holding both sides accountable to a broader moral vision.”

   So there most surely is a Christian angle on the issues we face, and more clarity than you might imagine.  If you’ll stick with me, I’ll explore some of these.  We may as people of faith disagree about the best way to implement what God has pressed for; but we can’t support anything contrary to God’s way, and we can’t ignore what God has insisted we be involved in.  Stanley Hauerwas is right: “The Church is not simply a ‘voluntary association’ that may be of some use to the wider public, but rather is the community constituted by practices by which all other politics are to be judged.”

   In our next email, I’ll ask about which ‘side’ we should lean toward, which ‘side’ God is on – and then in the next installment we’ll explore what the Separation of Church and State really means, and what it doesn’t mean, and what it could be.  After that, we will examine some big issues, and dare to ask what God is asking us to do as Christians who are engaged citizens.

FYI: Earlier installments in this series are archived here.

Labor Day of Prayer - 'Tis the Season #12

   Labor Day, which nowadays is a long weekend marking the end of summer, and a good time for malls to spring big sales on us.  When it began in the late 1800’s, Labor Day was a day for parades seriously devoted to labor, public readings on the virtues of jobs, and organizing to improve working conditions.  What is a Christian to do with Labor Day during this election season?

   I like this: the U.S. Department of Labor defines Labor Day as “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”  In this series, we’ve been suggesting ways we can maintain a spiritual equilibrium in a very angry, confusing, depressing political environment, and also ways we might make contributions to the fixing of politics in America.  I wonder if the greatest labor God tasks us with, though, is prayer.

   And don’t take that in an overly pious way!  Prayer isn’t closing our eyes to the troubles of the world, or an abdication of responsibility, leaving it in God’s hands.  If we pray, we listen – and God will be inviting us to some pretty daunting, unselfish acts.

   So during this political season, we begin with prayer – and first of all, for me – or you, my beloved reader!  Pray for your self, your soul, your holiness.  Pray – not for my way to prevail, but for God’s way, and for God to have God’s way in me.  If I am bitter, or anxious, maybe I’m shutting God’s Spirit out and not letting mercy’s healing work do its thing.

   Then look at our elected officials, and also the wannabes.  The Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer prescribes regular prayers for the President, by name, whoever that President might be.  What if we citizens redirected our annoyed griping about a bumbling politician or about a policy or party or candidacy that seems flawed into praying for that politician?  Instead of stewing inwardly or launching into tirades or grimacing in agony, what if we prayed for him or her, or for whomever is impacted by what’s unfolding? If we believe in God, then we surely would believe prayer might be a healthier, more constructive activity.  Prayer could be our great gift to American politics – or as the Department of Labor puts it, our great contribution “to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

FYI: Earlier installments in this series are archived here.

Christian Citizenship - 'Tis the Season #11

   I’ve always been fond of Paul’s words from a prison in Rome, when he was frail and facing the end: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).  Paul often trotted out his credentials as a citizen of Rome – something to be proud of.  But in the end, he knows his true place isn’t anyplace down here, but his belonging, his true home, is in heaven.

   Yet Paul was no despiser of this world and even its governments.  In Romans 13 he speaks of the very people who would conflict with him politically:  “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities… Pay to all what is due, taxes, revenue, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”

   When I was in junior high and high school, we took classes on “Citizenship,” and were even graded on “citizenship.”  We learned about local and national government, but also with a sense that a “citizen” was who you should be – somebody involved, in working for the public good, in forums, in town hall gatherings, in volunteering.  A citizen doesn’t carp from the sidelines.  A citizen gets engaged – and God calls us to be citizens, not only of heaven, but on earth. 
   Parker Palmer defines citizenship as “a way of being in the world rooted in the knowledge that I am a member of a vast community that I depend on for essentials I could never provide for myself.”  For Palmer, citizenship is not a burden, but something to be grateful for – and thus our life is about “trying to be responsive to its needs whether or not my immediate self-interests are met.  Whatever is in the common good is, in the long run, good for me and mine.”

   In our day, in an un-Christian way, citizenship gets replaced by consumerism.  Or, citizenship gets perverted into complaining - or griping.  As complainers who sit in our living rooms, do nothing, but grouse about what’s wrong out there, we become what Palmer called “barbarians at democracy’s gate.”  And more sadly, as Palmer explains, “we drive from the public square citizens who can’t bear this life of political combat.”  Wow.  Have you, or I, caused anybody to back away from getting engaged in community life because of our passionate but angry mood about a candidate or an issue?

   If you are looking for a prescription for citizenship in the Bible, look no further than Jeremiah 29: God says “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  This is biblical, this is American, this is God’s desire for us – to be citizens, to get out of the living room and get involved, to make a difference, to pursue the welfare of the community where we find ourselves.

   When the Christian engages in citizenship, we need to think clearly about those thorny, terribly misunderstood issues – the relation of politics and religion, and the separation of church and state, to which we’ll turn next week.

FYI: Earlier installments in this series are archived here.

Does a Candidate's Faith Matter? 'Tis the Season #10

   I’ve always been intrigued by the way a candidate’s person faith matters in an election – or doesn’t.  Martin Luther rather famously, and surprisingly, said (back in the 16th century!) “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian.”  Would Christians today prefer a wise Muslim to a foolish Christian?

   There was a great moment in one of John Kennedy’s congressional campaigns.  Jackie was asked about her husband being a Roman Catholic (which worried people in the late 50’s).  She responded, “It’s so unfair to question Jack for being a Catholic.  He’s such a poor Catholic…”

   Jimmy Carter was a great Southern Baptist.  Mitt Romney was a great Mormon.  But my sense is that most candidates, while sporting some faith badge, are a bit thin in their life of faith.  Sure, a candidate can claim to be a member of a given denomination.  But is he or she serious about it?  The difference between a church member, who shows up erratically and isn’t otherwise engaged, and one who is engaged in Bible study and constant service is huge.  Most politicians fall in the former category, don’t they?

   To me, the question about whether we want a devout Christian to be president (or governor, or mayor) is kin to asking Would you want Jesus himself to be president?  The candid answer is certainly, even if a bit embarrassingly… No.  “Turn the other cheek”? “Sell all and give to the poor”?  “Pay the one hour workers the same as the 12 hour guys”?  Jesus wasn’t trying to stabilize a state or insure security.  He wasn’t really focused on any institution.  Governments must cope with the realities of what Jesus would call sin, the need for police, armies, courts and legislation that frankly wouldn’t be needed at all if we all followed Jesus.

   So the connection between a candidate’s professed faith, and the implementation of what might be pleasing to God, is elusive – either because the faithful elected person might not be able to get it done, or his or her own faith might itself be compromised by party agendas that pretend to be, but aren’t of God.

   Christians are interested in Christian objectives.  But as citizens of a country where freedom of religion is paramount, should we demand someone who is a Christian of our variety? Or do we want a leader who can embrace the religious diversity we clearly have in our country, and navigate the best course for all the people?

   We have to get a grip on the daunting truth that once upon a time America was pretty much white, Christian, and Protestant.  Those days are over.  White Christian Protestants are now a large, but ever-shrinking minority.  We’ve had quite a few Presidents who were – barely? Christian.  The day will come when we will have leaders who do not claim this faith, or may claim another faith.  Do we shiver over such a future? Or can we find ways to embrace it, be part of its success, and figure out how to be Christian in such a changed place?  If clinging to Christianity in our leaders matters, what can we do to extend its influence and broaden its appeal where we are?

FYI: Earlier installments in this series are archived here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Character Matters in Politics? - 'Tis the Season #9

   Before we turn to the relationship of religion and politics, the separation of church and state, and ways Christians might think about policy matters, let’s weigh what kind of person we might want to vote for – or not vote for.  We probably would all agree that the character of a potential leader matters.  But how much? and what does our interest in a candidate’s character reveal to us about our own?

   Once upon a time, reporters looked the other way when confronted with presidential misbehavior.  I think character mattered more back then – which oddly enough was why moral lapses were hushed up.  In recent years, character has gotten more flabby – but reporters pounce on every little innuendo or mixup.  We are an exceedingly permissive society, but then nothing is ever forgiven.

   Should we insist upon stellar character in leaders? Or do we want whoever will get the job we want done?  Do we harbor the crazy idea that a politician who’s not squeaky clean but a bit crooked actually will get stuff done in a crooked world?  Many Americans would rank Jimmy Carter as being morally pure – but maybe not as effective as, let’s say, Bill Clinton, who was far less pure.  As Christians do we seek effectiveness or holiness? 

   Presidential historian Talmage Boston suggests the President should be the nation’s “conscience-in-chief.”  Who else
might exhibit virtue more publicly and have a larger impact on society?  Doesn't a President's uprightness matter in terms of the kinds of people we become, and who represents us morally on the world stage?

   In American politics, we are addicted to character assault.  The harshness of the fault-finding is relentless, and corrodes something at the core of our national soul.  Think about it:  if any one of us were subjected to constant nit-picking, if a bevy of snoops were making public an email you sent two years ago or something you said at a party last month, if your lamest moves and weakest moments were paraded in public, if a fact-checker were applied to every story you recounted from your college years, none of us would emerge unscathed.

   As Christians though, we know we are all flawed, fallen, broken people in need of mercy – and so are the politicians.  We need healing and growth – badly.  Spouting a harsh critique of a candidate may make you feel good, chiming in with others who loathe the same candidate you do may feel chummy – but criticizing somebody else doesn’t make you good, does it?  As you become closer to Jesus, you are less likely to cheer or even notice fault in others, much less carry on about it.  Your own goodness, your character, your holiness:  you have enough to work on without letting too much of your moral zeal get wasted on ruminating on what’s wrong with others.

   If we care about our nation’s character and morals, we realize these are not finally the responsibility of the President, Congress or Supreme Court.  Real change can’t be legislated.  Transformation happens in the heart, in many hearts, in communities that choose to be different, and better.  For centuries, the Church has assumed that we have a weighty responsibility for the character of the world.  How is God asking us to resume that large task?

   ** FYI, earlier installments in this series are archived here, and to subscribe email me.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

'Tis the Season #8 - Reconciliation

Where are we in our series?  We’ve been looking at the gifts the Church and Christians bring to the repairing of politics in America, like humility and sacrifice.  After pondering a third such gift today, we will take a brief look at whether character and faith matter in a candidate.  Then we’ll shift into the relationship of faith and politics, and then church and state quandaries.
   Now to the third gift we have to offer.  I’m a big fan of John Danforth, former Republican senator from Missouri and ambassador to the United Nations, and an ordained Episcopal priest. In Faith & Politics, the first of his two excellent books on the topic, he wrote “If Christianity is supposed to be a ministry of reconciliation, but has become, instead, a divisive force in American political life, something is terribly wrong and we should correct it.”

   Since we Americans are divided over everything, not merely religion, I like what Danforth suggests should be our strong suit as Christians: reconciliation. The heart of Christianity is the making of peace with enemies. Christ died, not so we could get personal favors or judge others, but so we would “view no one from a human point of view… for we are ambassadors of Christ,” and therefore “reconcilers” (2 Corinthians 5:16).  Reconciliation goes way beyond tolerance, or even forgiveness.  Reconciliation is going out of your way to fix broken relationships. Listen to Paul: “Outdo one another in showing honor; bless those who persecute you; live in harmony with one another; do not by haughty; if possible, so far as it depends on you, leave peaceably with all” (Romans 12:10-18).

   Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural, just 6 weeks before he was assassinated, ranks as one of the finest speeches in history.  He spoke of the South – not triumphantly, not exacting punishment or placing blame, but with hopeful words of reconciliation: “With malice toward none, with charity for all… let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  Could this national treasure, which dovetails flawlessly with the Christian vision of reconciliation, be resurrected in America today?

   Reconciliation requires compromise.  Senator and Speaker of the House Henry Clay was praised as “the Great Compromiser” – but in the 170 years since then, we’ve lost that art, and have replaced compromise with shrill demands for me and mine, foolishly thinking compromise is a vice.  It is a virtue down here in our broken world. 

   Mind you, churches suffer their own divisions.  At my denomination’s General Conference, my friend Bishop Greg Palmer said, “Instead of turning on one another, let us turn toward one another.”  Our only hope as a church is the same only hope we have as a nation: to begin to strive to live peaceably, to reconcile, to outdo one another in showing honor.  This could be the church’s great gift to politics in America.  We find others out there, listen, share, and we just won’t quit until we’ve made progress toward peace and understanding.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Sacrifice - in Politics? - 'Tis the Season #7

   A thrilling moment from my childhood that has stuck with me ever since happened on January 20, 1961.  Newly inaugurated President John Kennedy’s words rang out: “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”  Fast forward to 2016: it would be hard to recall any politician saying anything remotely kin to this in recent memory.  All political appeals are to self-interest.  If a candidate dared inform voters he would be asking them to sacrifice anything at all, he would be roundly defeated.

   Our Founding Fathers dreamed of a very different America, one in which the people were of such character that they would endeavor to be part of doing whatever was required for the public good.  This vision resonates naturally with Christianity, which never begins with me, me, me, but is always about God, about my place in the larger church, about what we can do for others.  Sacrifice is our wheelhouse – and for our country to change and become better, this ability to sacrifice for the common good will be required.  If the premise of American political life is nothing more than What’s in it for me? then we will be forever mired in anger and resentment, and our emaciated national soul will barely linger on, lacking the strength our Founding Fathers anticipated we would need.

   We may pity politicians, observing how desperate they are to pander to whatever they think will make me believe I’ll get what I want.  As Christians, do we really want our leaders to do what indulges me but leaves others disappointed?

   Self-interest also has this underbelly:  increasingly we see candidates who urge us to feel sorry for ourselves, to feel things are unfair, to believe we are victims.  This is nothing more than self-interest, but darkly passive.  No wonder voters are drawn to negative blamers.

   Mind you, there can always be unfairness.  But the prevalent mood that’s been created in America is self-pity, blame, a sense of entitlement that’s being infringed upon, and we all feel like victims of something or another.  “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” is empowering.  Instead of self-pity we seek positive engagement.  Instead of blame, we take responsibility.

   Christianity is the antithesis of blame and self-pity.  We engage, we are inspired and energized to the great cause of improving God’s world.  We know how to sacrifice for the common good.  Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  He didn’t blame the Romans for his troubles. 

   Jesus didn’t pray, God, what will you do for me? but instead prayed Not my will but your will be done.  He gave his life for others, for us – and invited each one of us into a life of being part of his Body, not a private beneficiary of blessing, but one member among many seeking the dawning of God’s good kingdom.  Could this be Christianity’s great gift to American society – a shunning of self-interest, and a recovery of joyful sacrifice for the greater good?

** FYI, earlier installments of this series are archived here. To subscribe, email me.