3 Perspectives on the Relationship Between Faith & Politics - Vince Brackett
SLIDE So the midterm elections are Tuesday, and it has me thinking back to an interaction I had years ago, during the early 2000s - the George W Bush era - which feels like it was another lifetime.
I was working in a Chicago Public school, in the history department, and early on in my time there this one history teacher, who was a bit of a provocateur, heard that I was a person of faith and a churchgoer, and he said he had a question for me: Did I think it was okay for pastors or church leaders to tell their congregations how to vote?
He, I learned, was an activist for Democratic policies, and his question referred to something that was unfortunately pretty common in some American Evangelical churches in the early 2000s (and in some still today), which is that pastors or church leaders would take advantage of their authority and become pseudo political operatives for the Republican Party. They would get around “separation of church and state” laws that prohibit churches from making political endorsements or political contributions by releasing voter “information packets” on “issues” that should be important to their congregation. (“They’re not voter guides, they’re information packets!”) And then Republican politicians would stoke the fire of those “issues”.
This solidified for many the idea of the Religious Right in America That the Republican platform is equated with God’s platform, And that being a Christian was equated with being a Republican.
This was where my history teacher & democratic activist co-worker was coming from when he asked his question.
Quick disclaimer here: by listening to me today, you’re likely going to be able to infer where I personally stand currently on some matters that are political. What I hope you’ll take from this is that Vince like everyone in this room is a human being with thoughts and feelings and opinions. What I hope you do NOT take from this is that I believe my thoughts and feelings and opinions are the only right ones, or that this church as an organization believes they are the only right ones We just felt it was important to talk about politics this Sunday, and your pastors are human beings not robots.
So, back to my story, what surprised my co-worker was that my personal experiences of faith and church could not have been more different from that sort of hyper partisan co-opting of Christianity by the Republican Party, so I did not give the answer he feared (or maybe he did want that answer, because again he was kind of provocateur and seemed to love a fight… anyway...)
I told him what I’d been taught by the pastors and church leaders in my life that felt wise and mature to me: That conflating faith and partisan politics is totally inappropriate, bad for the country and bad for faith, And that pastors and church leaders should strive to be apolitical, politically neutral, to not conflate spiritual guidance and political guidance.
My co-worker felt really satisfied with that. And so did I — I felt like that was clearly the right and reasonable course of action for pastors and people of faith in general.
So here’s why I’ve been thinking about this particular interaction again this election year: because what felt so satisfactory to me then just feels so unsatisfactory to me now.
Yes, it seemed to work at the time as a response to the Religious Right’s co-opting of Christianity, but over the last decade, I’ve become more and more aware of the ways my belief that I should pursue faith in an apolitical way falls short, and fell short back then even though I wasn’t aware of it. — SLIDE Now I can see it: to strive to be apolitical is essentially saying I think the best course of action is to bury my head in the sand.
And the realities of 2018 just make this all the more clear to me, to an unavoidable degree.
All of life is political. I think it always has been, but now I finally feel that. Stand up comedy is political, TV dramas and sitcoms are political, sports are political... This all might make some of us feel uncomfortable but again I think it’s been true forever. White, privileged people like me are just finally catching up to that truth.
And, really, the piece that has most broken the back of my previous view is how striving to live out faith in an apolitical way leads to the “both sides” danger. SLIDE This is sometimes called “false equivalency”. It’s mostly discussed in terms of journalists and the media, but I think it applies to faith settings that try to be apolitical as well
In journalism, The gist is that because the media are terrified of being perceived as “politically bias” (which could lose them sources or call their integrity into question)... Journalists can feel a strong pressure to try to be sure that for every negative story on one side of our political partisan divide they have a negative story on the other side too. The problem with this is that it can obscure reality: What if there is just a larger heap of trash on one side than the other? When that’s the case, presenting the trash heaps as equal actually gives an inaccurate picture of reality Don’t get me wrong: I believe a “balanced” view on matters is good for journalists to strive for, But operating out of fear for how you might be perceived is not a good way to arrive at balance It’s a good way to compromise your integrity.
Faith settings that strive to be apolitical, of course, have a similar fear of being perceived as “politically bias” And, therefore, there is a similar temptation toward the “both sides” danger. We hear things like, “Both sides, Democrat & Republican, are missing the model of Jesus.” Or, “Neither side really gets it.” It is true, yes, that both sides in our country, Democrat and Republican, fall short of the model of Jesus in unique ways BUT they do NOT fall short in equal levels of impact. By my read of Jesus, the rhetoric and policies coming out of the Republican party right now (the quote-Religious Right) are beyond falling short of the model of Jesus; they are hostile to the way of Jesus. “Both sides” language obscures that.
SLIDE So… I no longer see striving to be apolitical as a satisfactory alternative to the American Religious Right’s conflation of faith and partisan politics. I can’t see Jesus encouraging me to bury my head in the sand or pretend both sides are equally bad/good So what now? What should be the relationship between my faith and my politics?
I want to make the pitch this morning why this is an important question for all of us. It’s not just an important question for pastors like me and Kyle, because then we don’t feel uninformed if we’re asked about our position on something No, this is about MUCH more than a talking point.
What if, instead of politics being the thing that makes us cynical or exhausted, or the thing that makes us want to run away, or the thing that makes us so fired up we incessantly speak but never listen… what if politics could be to us an opportunity to hear from and feel inspired by God? Here’s the thing: Jesus’ fundamental message to humanity was that God is NOT distant from human affairs, not looking down on us from afar measuring us (or saying, “man, screw those guys”) Jesus shows us that God is so deeply, intimately invested in human affairs, that he became human himself To show us: A way of justice and equity and peace and compassion and integrity and humility and personal growth and self-sacrifice. How we should care for and love one another - The responsibility we all have in the flourishing of our fellow humans All of these things are tied to our current politics. My experience is that Jesus wants to talk to everyone who will listen about these things right now. If you’re someone who wants to feel more connected to a higher purpose in life that makes you feel like you matter beyond just being a consumer or producer for our Capitalist Conveyor Belt of a society, working on the relationship between your politics and your faith is a great place to start. You may find yourself hearing and feeling God more, or in a new, unexpected way. Because Jesus is highly interested and invested right now in American politics. And his primary avenue of influence is people. Us!
So I wish I could at this point say: here’s a clearly perfect new view on what the relationship between our politics and our faith should be, but I can’t. I haven’t found the magic pill.
What I can do though is pass on three different perspectives I’ve been exposed to, Each expounds on Jesus as a model for us, but in a different way They have some overlap with each other, and some contradictions with each other. And each seems to have truth to me. So I want to offer them all... and then let you all do what you will with them. Because we don’t consider it our jobs as pastors to tell you what to do or believe; We consider it our job to point you best we can toward Jesus and toward community and then treat you like adults as you work out what is best for you with Jesus and with your community
SLIDE First perspective: Jesus was intentionally political, but his politics are not to be equated with ours Proponents of this perspective cite things like: SLIDE Jesus’ various subversive comments toward the Roman Empire. A couple weeks back, we looked at one of these: Jesus indirectly referring to the Roman approach to peace (which wasn’t at all peace; it was violence in disguise) and his statement that he “came to bring a sword” to that kind of fake peace Or there’s the earliest mission statement and creed of the early church that St. Paul references: “Jesus is Lord”. An overt, subversive play on a political phrase of the time: “Caesar is Lord” SLIDE This all says: Jesus seems to have been intentionally political quite often. BUT what we must remember is that he was responding to political situations specific to his time It would be unwise to claim that any modern political platform could stand-in for his platform in every way, because our circumstances are totally different One pastor I know expressed this perspective this way: “There’s a Jesus-informed way to be Libertarian, Conservative, Liberal, Socialist, Monarchist, whatever… but there’s also many way to practice each of these political philosophies that violate the teaching of Jesus and the prophets who shaped him.” This perspective sort of feels like the most logical thing to jump to after crossing-out hyper-partisanship and trying to be apolitical Strive to remain as independent as possible… then you will NEITHER drink one side’s Kool-aid NOR fall into the “both sides” danger Be political, but not partisan.
SLIDE A second perspective: Jesus’ intent was NOT focused on politics, but he engaged them as necessary Proponents of this perspective cite things like: SLIDE Jesus’ comment to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate when the Jewish Elite brought him to be tried for treason: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36) SLIDE The idea here is: politics are a part of life, and so we must engage them, but they will always fall short of hitting the nail on the head -- Like, think about it, in the Modern American political landscape, in order to get into office, you have to have (or raise) SO much money. Recent data collected by the Center For Responsive Politics tracked the median net worth for members of Congress to be over $1.1 million! How represented can any of us truly be when most elected officials are millionaires? This perspective says: Politics will always nag us to be on the frontburner of life, but we must remember Jesus’ great mission is engaged in a more foundational work than our surface-level politics This says: one of the great tasks of life is to keep Jesus’ deeper work on the frontburner, and resist falling into the trap of playing by the usual rules of our imperfect world, which are always rigged -- whether in terms of politics or consumerism or whatever. SLIDE Psalm 146 muses on this perspective this way: 3 Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. 4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. 5 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. SLIDE One modern way I’ve heard this perspective expressed is: Jesus and the prophets who shaped him stood for foreigners and refugees -- But the reason they give is not political. The reason they give is love. It’s because embracing the other is at the heart of the life of love Jesus lived and wants us to experience. The fact that, in Modern America, standing for foreigners and refugees has been turned into a political issue by our cultural circumstances means following Jesus in that way is just going to have to be political right now. But the real intent is something politics can’t capture
SLIDE A third perspective: Jesus determined how political (and even partisan) it was appropriate to be based on power dynamics. Proponents of this perspective refer to the fact that: In the Gospels of Jesus, whenever someone powerless or marginalized was under threat, Jesus sided with them. Never the powerful, Always the powerless. In refusing to condemn the woman caught in adultery that the Jewish Elite publicly shamed, or... In pre-planning his entry into a capital city to include riding a donkey, which was an Ancient Jewish symbol of royalty bringing peace and equity to the masses... Or in many other instances... Jesus did not mind making politically-charged statements if they were in service of powerless or marginalized peoples According to this perspective, the plight of the powerless or marginalized trumps any other priority, including a Modern American priority to avoid partisan politics. If following Jesus in this way ends up being partisan, so be it. I saw this perspective powerfully expressed when my wife and I and some others from BLV attended the March For Families downtown earlier this year (in response to our current administration’s policies and lack of empathy separating immigrant parents and children) I was really moved by how many signs we saw that evoked Jesus’ words or the words of Biblical prophets. SLIDE “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Jesus -- Matthew 25) “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6) I saw these and more! SLIDE That March was very much anti-our-current-administration and pro-progressive-politics… My previous view of “faith should be apolitical” might have led me to feel uncomfortable with this. But, from this perspective, the partisan nature of that protest is an insignificant detail, because we’re talking about giving voice to the plight of the powerless and marginalized. Related to something I mentioned before, this is a perspective that a privileged, white person like me is late to the game to see the truth in I’m not sure what I previously thought champions of the powerless and marginalized like Dr. King were doing in the Civil Rights Movement… but it definitely wasn’t apolitical As I’ve learned, the Historically Black Church in America has for decades maintained an important voice for public policy that benefits marginalized peoples, by subscribing to a perspective like this A sort of: “Call us partisan if you will; we see this as following Jesus’ call.”
SLIDE So, again, I think there is truth in all three of these.
And what do I want you to do with this? I want you to use whatever felt helpful to you to work on your relationship between your politics and your faith… As an opportunity to interact with the God Jesus showed us: the God deeply invested in human affairs If you can vote, I do recommend you vote, and consider the model of Jesus as you make your choices. I think that will serve you. SLIDE Ballotready.org can give you your ballot ahead of time and you can write down your selections and take that in the ballot booth with you Beyond the more familiar offices on illinois’ ballot, I recommend also checking out voteforjudges.org, so you’re prepared for the onslaught of names at the bottom of your ballot In Illinois you can register in person at your local polling station even the day of the election… And your workplace by law has to give you time to go vote on Tuesday if you ask for it SLIDE But above all, as I mentioned before, given all that’s at stake in American politics right now, I want you to work on your relationship between your faith and politics by considering these because... There is huge opportunity here for you to feel connected with Jesus, to feel like Jesus is giving you purpose, to feel like Jesus is speaking to you, to feel like, maybe, love and hope and goodness are at the center of all things, not meaninglessness I need that. Because otherwise all I can muster right now is despair or outrage or mostly cynicism to be honest... me making sarcastic jokes about our governmental reality because that’s all I can do to not cry But if I can find Jesus in the midst of this election week, and continue to do so going forward in my political engagements, that changes my outlook
On that note, I want to lead us into prayer with a passage from the Talmud (a collection of the Jewish Rabbinic Oral Tradition). This passage is an elaboration on the passage from the prophet Micah I mentioned earlier. After last week’s Synagogue shooting, I saw this passed around quite a bit on the internet… and that made it all the more powerful to me...
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, But neither are you free to abandon it.”