By Nathaniel W. Pierce
The sermon by the Rev. George G. Regas, delivered Oct. 31, 2004, at All Saints’ Church, Pasadena, Calif., has become the focus of an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. The issue is whether a 50l(c)(3) organization (the church) violated the regulations which forbid tax-exempt entities to participate in partisan politics (i.e., the 2004 presidential election).
A quite separate issue is the theological perspective of the sermon itself, the title of which was “If Jesus debated Senator Kerry and President Bush,” and goes on to imagine such a debate. This in itself should give us reason to pause. In the only situation in the gospel accounts when Jesus himself might have participated in such a debate with a worldly ruler, he said to Pilate, “My kingship is not of this world” (John 18:36).
In his earthly ministry, Jesus’ teachings on spiritual truths were often communicated in the form of parables. He also lived those truths in his own brief earthly life which ended on Good Friday, itself an ultimate spiritual truth when coupled with Easter. So I have a difficult time imagining Jesus saying, “President Bush, you have not made dramatically clear what have been the human consequences of the war in Iraq.”
If Jesus had been asked about a war similar to our war in Iraq in his own day, I suspect he would have responded with his teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 (“Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty … ?”) or something like that. The point is that if we are appalled by the war in Iraq (as we all should be), perhaps we should ask ourselves how we have enabled this to happen. We could always begin with our love affair as a culture with violence (video games, the death penalty, guns, shooting school children, etc.).
But wait. There is more. “Mr. President ,” Jesus says in Fr. Regas’ sermon, “your doctrine of pre-emptive war is a failed doctrine. Forcibly changing the regime of an enemy that posed no imminent threat has led to disaster. It will take years for the widely felt hostility in Iraq and around the world to ebb.” Isn’t that exactly what we want: a Jesus who really cares about preemptive war and how the rest of the world feels about the United States of America?
Technically Not an Endorsement
No doubt for the benefit of the IRS, Fr. Regas does explicitly state that he is not telling people in the congregation how to vote. “Good people of profound faith will be for either George Bush or John Kerry for reasons deeply rooted in their faith,” he said. But the Jesus presented in the sermon is clear about how Jesus would vote, and the congregation is encouraged to “take all that Jesus means to you .. . into the voting booth on Tuesday.”
So from a technical perspective, the issue for the IRS is not a personal endorsement of presidential candidate John Kerry by Fr. Regas from the pulpit of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif. Indeed, Fr. Regas’ defenders quote this line from his sermon: “I don’t intend to tell you how to vote.” But any fair-minded reading of the sermon reveals that Jesus does have an opinion on that question. Thus it should not surprise anyone that the IRS would initiate an investigation.
I could cite other examples from the sermon but I trust you get my drift. I think the sermon cheapens the spiritual integrity of Jesus. It reminds me of the teenage boy who admits that he has masturbated. “What would Jesus say?” asks the scowling nun. Or the so-called pro-life demonstrators who ask the young, frightened, pregnant woman as she enters the abortion clinic, “What would Jesus say?” Or those appalled by the election of the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson as Bishop Coadjutor of New Hampshire who ask, “What would Jesus say?” Those who ask this question already “know” the answer for sure. This “knowing for sure” is self-serving idolatry.
The conservative right wing has Pat Robertson announcing that God has departed from Dover, Pa., because the residents dared to throw out of office all the members of a dysfunctional school board who decided that “intelligent design” should be taught in science classes in the school system. The liberal left has George Regas presenting a Jesus who is concerned about pre-emptive war and cares about America’s image in the world. I admit that I abhor God’s word (via Robertson) and rather agree with the teachings of Jesus (via our own Episcopal priest, George Regas). Perhaps you have a different reaction.
In any case there can be no doubt that such proclamations cheapen that which is divine and holy. Let us renounce these efforts as damaging the reputation of God and Jesus. In the original meaning of the word, all of these pronouncements are nothing less than blasphemy.
The Rev. Nathaniel W. Pierce is a retired priest who lives in Trappe, Md. This article was first published in the November 6, 2006 issue of The Living Church.