By Jordan Hylden
Politics has become poisoned, certainly in the United States. Unprecedented numbers of American voters distrust both major party candidates for president. In fact, many of those voters even distrust the candidate they’re supporting, just less so than the other one. Truthful and civil common speech is hard to come by. Fearful, exaggerated, and demonizing speech, thinner than air but hotter than fire, is almost the coin of the realm.
If there is a silver lining to these dark clouds, it may be that more and more people are recognizing the impoverishment of American political culture today, and seeking something more substantive. Is there a language and a way of life together that does not lead to the scorched-earth tactics, the balkanization, and the empty sound bites that by now have burned away nearly all of our public civility and substantive thought? Is there a common political hope that does not depend upon crushing our enemies in battle, on total victory by any means necessary?
The answers that can be found require us to look again at the politics of Jesus, to see what light can be shed on our dark times. We have asked four leading clergy and scholars in the Episcopal Church to answer this question: Where do the politics of Jesus call us today? Their answers speak to many of our problems, but do not spend much time on the details of public policy or for whom one should vote, important as these surely are. Rather they go deeper, recognizing that there are often no straight lines to be drawn. By turning again to the words and the way of Jesus our Lord, we will be better citizens of the kingdoms of this world precisely as we live together as witnesses to the kingdom of the world to come.
The Rev. Canon Jordan Hylden is an associate editor of The Living Church and canon theologian of the Diocese of Dallas. TLC’s editors have invited further commentary on this year’s election season on our weblog, Covenant.
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A Call to Civility
By Philip Turner
“Where do the politics of Jesus call us today?” Mindful of the proximity of our national elections, The Living Church has posed this question to four of the Episcopal Church’s clergy and teachers. I was hesitant to agree to the request not because I believe Christian belief and practice have nothing to do with politics but because it is far from clear to me that Jesus had a “politics” that was in any sense like ours today. Attempts to paint Jesus as a Zealot remain unconvincing. He had neither a policy for Rome’s form of government nor for the empire’s colonial policy. Indeed, it appears that he may have counseled obedience to the governing authorities, even in respect to the conscription of forced labor (Matt. 5:41).
In our time and place, “politics” refers to social purposes and policies about which there is disagreement, and organized contention. As a matter of full disclosure my own politics tends to be center left in respect to domestic policy and cautiously internationalist in respect to foreign policy. About some domestic and international issues, I have firm commitments and deep feelings. I believe, for example, that it is immoral to ignore the degree of poverty to be found within our national boundaries and I believe that America is avoiding its responsibilities for the refugee crisis that now is to be found within our own borders and within Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
No doubt readers of these four brief statements of opinion have deeply held convictions and ardent feelings of their own; and no doubt many of these convictions and feelings are diametrically opposed to mine. As is often said, “Politics is a contact sport.” In the rough and tumble of political argument and struggle the name of Jesus is often invoked in support of our convictions and in denunciation of those of our opponents. I do not wish to say or imply that religious beliefs, be they Christian or other, have no proper place in our political deliberations. I do wish to say that it is only rarely the case that one can draw a straight line from the teaching and example of Jesus to a particular form of government or to a particular social or economic policy decision. Thus, for example, I support a rise in the minimum wage, a single payer form of medical care, and a program to regularize the status of the enormous number of undocumented immigrants within our country. I can say that my understanding of the teaching and example of Jesus play a part in these beliefs and commitments. What I cannot say is that my beliefs about Jesus lead necessarily to the political conclusions I have drawn about these disputed topics. I cannot use the politics of Jesus as a justification of the politics of Philip Turner.
I can, however, use our Lord’s teaching and example as a guide in respect to the way in which I, as a citizen who is also a Christian, enter the debates and struggle that now so divide our commonwealth. If Jesus can be said to have had a social policy, it surely can be summed up as truth and reconciliation. If Jesus calls to me in the midst of the troubled times that are mine, it is to speak the truth as I see it and in doing so seek reconciliation with those who oppose me. These two words, truth and reconciliation, so central to the mission and message of Jesus, when placed within the political arena take the form of the most central of political virtues: civility. It is civility that has disappeared from our common political life and it is to civility (which includes both truth and reconciliation) that Jesus, in the midst of acrimony, calls us today.
The Very Rev. Philip Turner is dean emeritus of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and author of Christian Ethics and the Church: Ecclesial Foundations for Moral Thought and Practice.
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Status Confessionis for Our Time
By Fleming Rutledge
You do not need to be good at Latin (I’m certainly not) to appreciate Latin phrases. I’m reflecting these days upon status confessionis, a Lutheran concept from the 1600s, later recalled by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the Nazi years. The idea is that there are certain crises in history when Christians must speak up and stand for the faith, or else the Church ceases to be the Church.
Every Sunday since this time last year, I have heard sermons in churches large and small, urban and rural. With only a couple of exceptions, they have not made even the slightest reference to the crisis in our national politics. You would never know that an evil spirit has been unleashed among us. I do not use the term “evil spirit” lightly. Every book of the New Testament presupposes the existence of an Enemy, a personal intelligence bent upon undoing the work of God, and there is no human being who is immune to the sinister insinuations of this tyrant. (As I have written elsewhere, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings compellingly dramatizes the universal human vulnerability to this malign Power.)
The absence of powerful speech counteracting the creeping poison in our atmosphere is a sign of fear. Marilynne Robinson memorably wrote: “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind,” yet — if I’m not mistaken — we seem to be unable to figure out how to overcome our fear of our own parishioners: maybe we will divide the congregation; maybe we will come across as too “political”; maybe we will face hostility from our own people. I think I understand the strength of these doubts. And yet, I believe the Church faces a status confessionis, and we have already let it go on too long without a counterattack.
I think it was John Wesley who said that every sermon should be preached as if someone’s life might depend on it. American ideals were founded on recognizably Christian foundations (it is common to dispute this today, but it can be defended), and when the foundations are shaken, the life of the nation is at risk. The toxic atmosphere now unleashed in the body politic cannot be locked back into Pandora’s box. It must be fought on many fronts for many years. As a lifelong admirer of preachers like William Stringfellow and Will Campbell, I believe we must speak out in no uncertain terms, not just on one Sunday but on many Sundays for the foreseeable future, about the climate we suddenly find ourselves in. If we do not, we have forfeited our calling to preach the Word of the living God.
I have thought deeply about preaching in this time of status confessionis. My blog post titled “Words to the church in our national crisis” has been read by three times more people than my most popular previous post. I have therefore offered a new feature on my blog specifically about preaching to the soul of the nation without mentioning candidates’ names or political parties. I’m collecting examples from the news, adding to them as the weeks go by. These illustrations for sermons offer examples of what I believe can be the empowering message for any sermon: “No one can do everything. But everybody can do something.”
Every sermon should end, not with an exhortation, but with a promise. The promise is that because the crucified Jesus is victor, even the smallest actions of the “least of these” count for a great deal. We are all soldiers in this war for the soul of American culture and the credibility of the church. God forbid that the Church should fail to be its true self.
The Rev. Fleming Rutledge blogs at generousorthodoxy.org. Her most recent book is The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.
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Challenging the Politics of Division
By Eugene Sutton
First, a confession. For several years in my ordained ministry following seminary, I carefully avoided preaching on most of the controversial issues facing our country. Judging from the silence in my sermons, you would have thought that our Lord Jesus would frown on his followers speaking to the political culture of our times, and that the Christian gospel has practically nothing to say about how to govern ourselves as a just and democratic society.
The reasons for my silence were neither indecipherable nor noble. In truth, I was scared. I chickened out from saying anything that would rile up the congregants in my small church who represented the diversity of political and social views that the national polls say continue to divide us today. I liked my job, I liked getting paid, and I liked being liked. So, I found creative ways to step around saying anything that would upset a particular voting bloc in my church, be it liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, progressive or traditionalist.
And yet Jesus himself was “political.” By that I do not mean he aligned himself with a certain party, nor did he propose purely political solutions for the social problems of his day. Jesus was, of course, supremely a spiritual and religious figure in the lineage of the Hebrew prophets before him. But it is undeniable that the life and ministry of our Lord put him in conflict with the political powers and values of his culture. The gospel Jesus and his followers proclaimed had inevitable ramifications for how society was to be organized for the benefit of the people.
The Christian gospel cannot be reduced to a personal soul-saving and life-changing message for individuals alone, and it cannot be cocooned to operate solely within organized religious communities. The gospel affects all of life, including all political institutions. As the French Catholic poet Charles Peguy once wrote, “Everything begins in mysticism, and ends in politics.”
The current political season is marked by fear, anger, mistrust, and division. The values of the Christian gospel, however, are characterized by the “fruit of the Spirit” in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22-23). The politics of Jesus, no matter what social or economic policies are being espoused or denounced, demand these values undergird both the tone of the political conversation and its proposed outcomes.
Shouldn’t the politics of Jesus move us to judge what our political candidates say about their opponents, how they talk about “others,” and whether their economic and social policies are based on the kind of gospel values that St. Paul commended?
If so, then we should talk about these things in church. But given our current sour political climate, how? At the risk of being attacked for being overly simplistic, I humbly offer the following ground rules. I offer these for both ordained clergy as they preach and for those in the congregation as they listen.
A guideline for preachers
- Always preach the gospel. Respect the pulpit; don’t view it as your personal political platform.
- Speak as one informed witness to Christ’s gospel, acknowledging there are other witnesses.
- Remind your listeners that this is the beginning of a conversation you want to have with them, not the end of a needed conversation.
- Show some courage. It’s easier in the long run for your pastoral ministry than cowardice.
- Be willing to listen, be willing to change your mind, be willing to repent.
A word to listeners
- Cut your preachers some slack. They really are trying to say and do the right thing.
- Acknowledge in yourself that Jesus was both a spiritual and a political teacher.
- Read the cited Scriptures, and have the conversation with God and with others that the preacher is inviting you to have.
- Be willing to listen, be willing to change your mind, be willing to repent.
If our dioceses and churches can put into practice the gospel-infused values of Jesus, then we can show the world another model of political discourse in this divisive season, one based on “striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.”
The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton is Bishop of Maryland.
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For God and Country?
By Charles Pinches
This presidential election has been strange enough to spark questions about what’s going on. Duke theologian Norman Wirzba offered this assessment to The Dallas Morning News: “The current election cycle is demonstrating that the rhetoric and mythology of a uniquely Christian America should come to an end. Why? Because the votes don’t lie. Though voters may speak piously and rather vaguely about Christian values and ideals, polls and election results communicate clearly that this is a nation consumed by fear, anger and suspicion, none of which are Christian virtues. If voters were serious about presenting to the world a picture of a Christian America, they would need to be painting with the colors of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5) [as] witness to Jesus Christ and the power of God at work in their lives. Of course, Americans and their leaders will continue to speak in the name of God as they make their case for American Exceptionalism and the righteousness of the American Way. But from a scriptural point of view, it is all rubbish.”
Wirzba’s comments speak in one way to where the politics of Jesus call us today: political rhetoric that incites fear, anger, and suspicion, even if dripping with “Christian” terms, is not the politics of Jesus. Perhaps we first need to name this, as Jesus himself named the political hypocrisies of his time. Moreover, we need to be reminded of the stark contrasts. Christians, after all, worship a crucified Lord who was executed as a threat to a regime that was remarkably successful at politics of a certain sort. Christian “political involvement” for the next 300 years, when women and men like Perpetua painted the world with the colors of love, not infrequently got them martyred. The politics of Jesus may involve this, Christians should remember, perhaps even in America.
But there is something more. Wirzba notes that our political climate is one in which Christians will continue to press for a “Christian” America, telling the national story as if it extends Christ’s. Why is this? Why do people — and if we are honest, this applies to many of us — feel so compelled to connect God and national life?
A historical answer is simply that this is the human pattern. “Separation of church and state” is a modern idea at which most ancient peoples would scoff. For them a people’s distinct identity is tied essentially to its religion — and they would fight and kill for this identity. Some might call this barbaric, but the Bible suggests that in fact all nations have an ultimate desire (Hag. 2:9): for messiah, and the peace he brings. Yet this desire virtually always drives them toward other things. National desire often dispatches Christian hope, which teaches us to wait upon our redeemer; when it blossoms in troubled times, false messiahs can be eagerly welcomed and suspicion and hatred find ready refuge under religious-sounding names.
We have come again to how things can go wrong, as if this needs telling in this election season. But I mean to suggest that the God-America connection, as confused and dangerous as it might be, is rooted in a certain love and desire that can be good, if it is both clarified and limited. There is a natural and rightful love of country (any country, “Christian” or no, whichever one happens to be ours) whose bounded land daily sustains us, a love that receives its gifts with gratitude. “Patriotism” is one name for this; St. Thomas Aquinas calls it “piety” (Summa theologiae II-II, 101) and classifies it under the virtue of justice, which offers others their due. Piety applies first to God, to whom we owe everything, but second also to our parents, and by extension from family to country. It highlights the truth that insofar as we are located on this earth we depend on situated communities that carry us through time, offering us the gifts of nourishment from land, tradition and culture, gifts we rightly honor and pass on.
For Americans, voting is perhaps one of these. It should never be mindless, but its ritualized character is important. If we are disappointed with the candidates, there are write-in options. We vote not simply to “make my vote count” but rather to honor a process that others before us struggled to establish so all citizens could participate in some way in a common national life. “Piety” in this vein looks forward by looking back. And this means that it can be true only as it tells a truthful story of a people, including the darker chapters. In our time of sound bites and social media this is increasingly difficult. Yet the truth can still be discovered if we investigate, and we can still gauge who among the candidates speaks more or less of it.
Piety especially for country is necessarily limited, for we do not live by bread alone. Other greater gifts have other sources. For instance, our salvation is not found in our families, or even in America. One of the Church’s jobs is to remind us that the nation is not the Church, and help us identify what we owe to whom. It also must nurture in us a genuinely theological hope that does not trade itself in for a Christian America. Theological hope protects piety by reminding us that we are ultimately traveling beyond to another, better country, and by giving us the strength and patience to live in the particular country in which we have been placed, appreciating its limited good gifts and enduring its various trials.
Charles Pinches is professor of theology at the University of Scranton, and the author of A Gathering of Memories: Family, Nation, and Church in a Forgetful World.