Religion and politics have an uneasy relationship. In the United States, of course, we have a formal separation of church and state – and many people have taken that to mean that religious leaders should simply stay out of politics. This is the consensus of most Episcopalians, many of whom frown on the preaching of politics from the pulpit. But other Americans believe just as firmly that the same law that gives us the right to worship as we please also gives us the right (and the obligation) to vote based on our religious beliefs. Those who argue against “politics in the pulpit,” suggest that the church is about reconciliation -and that the introduction of politics into church discourse can only lead to disharmony and separation rather than the peace and unity that people hope to find in church. On the other hand, I would suggest that “every area of life needs a moral purpose and clear ethical boundaries, and no area of life needs it more desperately” than politics.
The word “politics,” derives from Aristotle, who described a system by which affairs of a community or state can be determined. The etymological root of the word “politics” -“pol”- means “smooth.” It’s the same as the root of “polite.” Thus, both politics and politeness have to do with smoothing relationships between people. The goal of political discourse, then, is to work things out so people can live together in harmony -which suggests that politics do have a place in the church.
And it’s pretty hard to argue that Jesus wasn’t a political figure. As some of you have heard me say before, Jesus did not die as a religious martyr – after all, the leaders of his own religion actually supported his death. Rather, he died as a political prisoner, for suggesting, among other things, that it is okay to break a law if it benefits your fellow human beings to do so; that human leaders are subject to the laws of God, that prejudice and slavery are wrong, and that religious leaders should be held to the same standards of behavior as everyone else.
But politics and religion have a much deeper and long-term relationship than even Jesus’s struggles with the powers of his time. We only heard part of today’s assigned reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, which is too bad, because we missed the most entertaining part of the story of the epic deity smackdown in which Elijah and the prophets of Baal go toe to toe to prove to the people whose god is the best god. The showdown takes place in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the period after the freeing of the Jews from Egyptian slavery. The Israelite King Ahab has married Jezebel, a Baal worshipper, and God sends Elijah to straighten out the Israelites about who is the real God of Israel. In an episode worthy of any reality t.v. show, Elijah kicks off the contest by taunting Baal’s prophets to call their god to see if he will come and show himself. In the part we didn’t read, as time goes by and Baal doesn’t show our hero Elijah starts trash-talking Baal’s prophets, suggesting that their god must be deaf, lost, out-of-town, or has fallen asleep. When Baal’s time is up, Elijah calls on his God – our God, who not only shows up, but promptly sets his own burnt offering on fire and then consumes it in front of everyone. Now that’s style!
It’s also power, and if you read a bit further in Kings, you will find the God of Israel exercising that power. Having established his superiority to Baal, God demands that Elijah repudiate Ahab and crown a new king who will worship the God of Israel – and him alone. Elijah’s action eventually leads to the banishment and endangerment of the prophet and eventually to war. In today’s world the endorsement of political candidates by religious leaders is commonplace and don’t lead to banishment, but it’s likely that he would probably be fined and potentially lose his preaching license for breaking the Internal Revenue Tax Code for religious institutions by endorsing a specific candidate from the pulpit.
I can’t imagine an Episcopal priest going that far in today’s political world. But the truth is that we preach politics all the time – because our job is to interpret the holy scriptures in a way that helps us determine how to live our lives not only here in church, but also in the real world – the one in which we are in relationship with both those who believe as we do and those who don’t. So if we think of “politics” as being about organizing our lives together in a way that best respects and assists all of our citizens, then everything that we hear in church – and certainly everything that Jesus said – has political implications.
A recent Pew Foundation report suggests that there is actually a hunger for politics from the pulpit, with 49 percent of Americans indicating that they want pastors to talk about politics. These people are seeking spiritual guidance – and many preachers are willing to give it to them. We don’t have to look very far to see the dangers of preaching politics. The political trajectory of the so-called religious right has created a climate of divisiveness and fear that I believe has shattered rather than increased the faith of many people. Using scripture to frighten and control God’s people rather than to enlighten and sustain them – as a bully’s club rather than a shepherd’s staff – is not just wrongheaded but sinful.
The same is true of those who oppose all religion. Groups like the Openly Secular movement are using this contentious election season to argue that “the world would be more sane if all religions, all primitive superstitions, were abandoned.” Many members of these organizations do not differentiate between Christians, seeing those who “believe that the Bible is a book of facts and not myths,” and others who thoughtfully and prayerfully consider the relationship between science and faith as one credulous collective.
The problem with both groups is their unwillingness to attempt to actually know others – to figure out how to live with them instead of forcing them to live the way we think they should. But that is what happens when we make judgments based on what we believe we are entitled to instead of what we deserve. It is what happens when the love of power seeks to overcome the power of love – when hubris trumps humility.
The actions of the centurion from today’s gospel, though, show us a different way. Despite the fact that he exercises more human political power than Jesus could ever have, the centurion recognizes Jesus’s spiritual authority over him, and by acting on that belief he saves the one he loves. The centurion’s action is a political one – and not his first. Based on the text, it seems likely that this particular Roman officer was of Israelite heritage – a not unheard of situation, but a dicey one in which he could have lost his prime position if he was seen as pushing a pro-Israelite agenda too far. And he had already built a synagogue, making him beloved to the Jewish elders. But the centurion takes the risk, because he recognizes that his earthly authority means nothing in the face of Jesus’s power – because human power is always limited.
But God’s power is unlimited and she does not use her power to give us what we deserve; God uses his power to give us what we need. And the power God is not only unlimited, it is, by its very nature, merciful and just. When humans judge one another, we are often thoughtless, cruel, and selfish. But, according to the psalmist, when God judges us, we should rejoice, because God will judge the world with righteousness and truth.
That’s because God is right. We only think we are. This human tendency toward “rightness” – toward a rigid and unshakeable belief in our own irrefutable spiritual correctness both permeates current American culture and is as ancient as fear and doubt themselves. This is the corruption of the gospel that Paul is talking about when he rails against the Galatians for “perverting” the gospel of Christ. He is not angry at them for turning to a “different” gospel; he believes that there is no such thing. Rather, he is furious at those he sees as confusing these fledgling Christians about the meaning of the gospel that they have already received -at those who seek the approval of human beings by preaching human politics – the politics of coercion, judgment, and fear. Paul’s message is simple and straightforward: using the gospel of Christ to garner human power is not serving Christ. That kind of politics has no place in any pulpit.
But the foundational ideas of the true gospel – justice, mercy, and peace – are political, and they have everything to do with how we organize and live our lives together –everything to do with our politics. And by not preaching these values we allow others who are willing to preach politics to pervert the gospel of Christ – and that, according to Paul, is sin indeed. Human politics are not God’s politics. Human politics divide; God unifies. Scripture tells us again and again that God’s will is that we live together in love -and God has provided us with the tools to do so. Our job is to be wise, courageous and faithful by applying the wisdom of God to the politics of human beings. If we can do this we will have nothing less than the power to bring about the kingdom of God – and in that place we will indeed live together in a relationship governed by love and grace. Amen.
Greg Forster (2014), “Politics in the Pulpit? Yes and No,” Patheos, www.patheos.com/blogs/missionwork/author/forster/.
Pew Foundation, (2014), www.pewforum.org/2014/09/22/public-sees-religiouns-influence-waning.
John Davidson, (May 15, 2016), “An entertainer comes out at 74 – as openly secular,” SF Chronicle, E5.