Politics and Faith

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Michael Cash sat across a circular table from me in Griffin, Georgia. He was the district superintendent for the Griffin District (now the South West District) of the North Georgia Conference. It was my first meeting with a DS as a Licensed Local Pastor, having only recently completed the required two week course. We talked about various aspects of being a pastor, what to expect, who to watch out for (he had an inch thick manilla folder of complaints from the lay leader about other pastors), and his expectations as a DS. At one point, I made a comment about how I hated politics. To that point, I had been part of several churches which had suffered greatly because of internal politics and power struggles. I was of the opinion politics in church was a problem for the church, period. Michael made this statement in response, “The word politics comes from the Greek word polis and it just means people. There are good people and bad people so there is good politic and bad politics.” I had not had many favorable experiences with good people/politics so I chalked his comment up to pastoral optimism and went on my merry way.

Over and again, I avoided mixing politics and ministry. I tried to avoid taking sides between parishioners (not always successfully) unless there was something obviously wrong, such as harm being done to someone or an obvious harmful motive behind someone’s stance. My motto/mantra was, “Politics has no place in the church and the church has no place in politics.” I lived this as best I could and for the most part managed to avoid the political in the ecclesial. A few times, this detachment cost me. At one point, I was nearly dismissed from the ordination process for being on the wrongside of a longstanding political struggle, coupled with my own inexperience at navigating the highly charged relationships involved. I have had parishioners at times think me lukewarm or uncaring for refusing to address what I saw as political issues. 

The truth of the matter is, I spent most of my life struggling with undiagnosed depression and anxiety. I hated politics and the idea of politics because it meant a particular kind of confrontation, one where the anger and vitriol people felt over the issue would be directed at me. I felt like I didn’t have the tools or ability to defend myself or my beliefs when confronted on a personal level. My anxiety would well up and I wouldn’t be able to think straight in the moment, my thoughts coming to me much later after I had calmed down. I could formulate something to say in the argument, but only long after the argument was over. During the recent Covid shut down, I had the opportunity to address these issues with the help of a licensed counselor and the support of family and friends. I have developed tools and abilities to manage these issues and frankly, I feel like a different, and much better person for myself, my family, and the parish I serve. With that in mind, I have developed a new understanding of politics, one that arose during a careful reading of the gospels and some authors I have read recently. It is a politic informed by the Way of Jesus.

Some of you may be thinking, “Uh, oh. Religious nut job alert!” I can sympathize with your skepticism. I know of many people who have conflated the politic of a political party with those of Jesus and called it the politics of Jesus politic or bibilical politics. Usually, these negative political are based on hot button issues that I believe were brought to the forefront of American politics by the Moral Majority of the 1970s and 1980s to create a religious platform for Evangelicals. But I digress and stir up a can of worms at the same time. My intent here is to talk about the politics and ethos of Jesus and take it directly from Jesus. 

And that was my first lesson, Jesus ethos and actions were politically charged. From turning over the money changers tables to eating with the socially and religiously unacceptable to calling out the various religious leaders for their hypocrisy and mismanagement of the authority given to them, Jesus was an in your face kind of prophet. He called people snakes and vipers. He challenged longstanding ideas that had been rooted in religious manipulation and control. He questioned the moral underpinnings of his own people when they failed to align with what he saw as the prophetic word of God. 

Jesus related political theory is rooted in the first century circumstances of a conquered people living under a regime that was at times oppressive and at other times didn’t need to be. Within the Jewish political framework of Jesus’s day, there were socio-religious parties (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and nationalist of varying stripe) who could as oppressive as the Romans simply with social and religious pressure. The hot button issues for Jesus weren’t Roe v. Wade or prayer in schools. Those things didn’t exist. Jesus’s hot button issues were those of the Old Testament Prophets. What is your character ethos (Matthew 5-7)? How do treat the poor, the widow, the stranger, the immigrant (Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 1:46-55)? Why don’t you address your religious and political hypocrisy for what it is (Matthew 12:9-30)? Why do marginalize your fellow human being for things they have no control over (Mark 5:1-20)? Why do you claim the name of God as authority for things that God doesn’t care about (Matthew 12:1-8)?

The Jesus Politic has nothing to do with power, either gaining or excesing it over people, and everything to do with reconciling them to their God, their community, and themselves. It is the politics of restoration and reconciliation rather than the politics of forced morality and religious manipulation. Our country, our world, since the time of Constantine has sought to marry the ethos of the state with the ethos of the Church. I believe the church, particularly the places we worship should be places devoted to God and God only. Nothing of the state should be represented in the sanctuary because the sanctuary is place beyond the state. It is holy ground, set aside for God and God alone. Not long ago, I removed the American flag and the Christian flag from the sanctuary of our church. I was curious to see if anyone would approach me about in order to facilitate this discussion (no one did). Someone replaced the flag in the sanctuary and rather than start a back and forth tug-of-war, I left it where it was. While many people see this a symbol of pride and heritage (neither of which are bad in an of themselves), I see it as a negative politically motivated act and one that undermines the message of the church (for the significance of planting a flag click here and here. There should be one message and one message alone (that of reconciliation to God)one God and one politic alone (The Way of Jesus). Were it not for the distraction it would cause, I would remove the flag on a weekly basis to make the point that the church’s politic is singular in focus, the politic of Jesus.

We have the opportunity as the disciples of Jesus to choose. We can align ourselves with the politics of Jesus, those mentioned above, found in the biblical record or we can align ourselves with the politics of our world that at present are creating a polarized, us versus them way of life. I do not believe the the polarized, modern Evangelical ethos will lead us to glorify God or revialtize the church. From what I have seen and continue to see, it will only create a religious/political party destined to drive people away from the idea of being disciples of Jesus for fear of being aligned with people who express a message contrary to the one Jesus preached. We can choose to have good politics or bad politics as Dr. Cash said.

What do you think? Is the modern, Evangelical politic the modern politic of Jesus? Why or why not? Send me an email at lmjarrell@umcsc.org and let me know what you think.