#10. Too Political

Part 10 in the sermon series “10 Things I Hate about Church
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
November 14, 2010
1 Samuel 8:1-9; Romans 13:1-7; Matthew 22:15-22

1 Samuel 8:1-9 • When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the LORD, and the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

Romans 13:1-7 • Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Matthew 22:15-22 • Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

I. BEGINNING

So, I went into the polling place the other day ready to cast my vote as a dutiful citizen.  I took my ballot from the ballot clerk and my little golf pencil and walked over to the voting booth.  I started to fill in the bubbles next to candidates’ names.  I started to fill in the bubble next to one candidate’s name when suddenly I heard a voice.

No. Not that one.

“Excuse me?” I said, looking around.  There didn’t seem to be anyone there.

Don’t vote for that one.

“Uh, why not.”

It is my will.

“Your will?”

Yes.

“Your will for my vote.”

Yes. It is my will that you not make that vote.

“Wait, let me get this straight—it’s your will that I don’t vote for this person for Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner?  They don’t even have any real power.”

That is right.  In order that my will might be done in West End, Dupont, and throughout all Ward 2.

“But she’s the only candidate on the ballot.”

Write someone in.

“Who should I write in?”

Write yourself in.

“I already ran for ANC once twelve years ago and lost.”

Right, by 100 votes. A 2-to-1 margin.”

“Thanks for reminding me.”

Then write anyone in. It doesn’t matter.

“It doesn’t matter?  I don’t understand—why would God tell me how to vote for Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in ANC 2B?”

Who says I’m God?

Ah.  Good point.  Why would I have thought that God had a will for me to vote a particular way? What made me think that God had political preferences?

II. TOO POLITICAL

Of course there are plenty of Christians who think that way.  And plenty of people outside the church who feel that Christianity has become way too political.  Overly involved with politics and wrapped up in a political agenda.

Three quarters of young people outside the church and half of young people inside the church describe present day Christianity as “too involved in politics”.[1] Two thirds of Millennials and Gen-X’ers outside the church, and half of young born-again Christians said that they perceive, “the political efforts of Conservative Christians” to be a problem facing America.[2]

Part of the problem was that alliances made in the 1970’s and 1980’s to promote particular religious points of view, quickly became co-opted to serve particular religious points of view.  And those two viewpoints became construed as synonymous.  Christian equals Republican.  That was an attitude that permeated not just outsider opinions about Christians, but often opinions within the church.  I have a friend who was told by a co-worker that you couldn’t be Catholic and a Democrat.  This prompted my friend to hang a picture of John Kennedy on her office wall the following day.

We should be quick to point out that it is not only on the right that you see this problem.  The left is just as capable of co-opting religion as the right.  And the identification of Christian faith with one particular political point of view does not increase Christianity’s credibility.

I showed the list of these sermon topics to an acquaintance of mine a couple of weeks ago and she zeroed right in on “too political”.  “Oh,” she said. “We were looking for a church to go to.  I really liked the church and the worship there, but the sermon was all about which candidates we should vote for.  We got up and left.”

The interaction of politics and religion seems to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths.  There was a member of the community some years ago who liked to know in advance when the “Other Six Days” Sundays were going to be so he could avoid them.  “It just comes a little too close to politics in the pulpit,” he’d say.

III. APOLITICAL

So, is the solution to separate the two altogether?  To see that faith and politics have nothing to do with one another?

One of the more famous passages in scripture when it comes to religion and politics is the passage we heard earlier from the Gospel of Matthew.  In it we hear a story of Pharisees and Herodians attempting to trick Jesus with a question about taxes.  They ask him a question that is designed to put him in a no-win scenario: is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?  If Jesus says yes, then he will have earned the enmity of Jewish nationalists, longing to be free of Roman oppression.  If he says no then he will have been espousing sedition and spoken against the Empire.

But Jesus confounds them all by asking to see a coin.  He asks, “Whose head is on it and whose title?” They reply “The emperor’s”.  Jesus responds, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  I remember when I was trying to read through the New Testament when I was a freshman in college how impressed I was with what a clever answer that was.  He answered it in such a way that no one could take offense.  Skillfully dodging the political issues.

And, some would argue, laying the foundation for the separation of church and state.  There are some things that are God’s and some things that are the state’s.  This is a sentiment echoed by John of Damascus some centuries later, who would write:

“It does not belong to kings to legislate for the Church… to kings belongs the maintenance of civil order, but the administration of the church belongs to the shepherds and teachers.”

He would describe a symphonia—a harmony between church and state based on function, a balancing of complementary spheres.

And that takes us right up through John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, to today.  The political realm is one thing, the religious another. One contemporary theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, would even go on record as saying:

The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.[3]

Hauerwas even would go so far as to say, “the church and Christians must be uninvolved in the politics of our society and involved in the polity that is the church.”[4] But is that stark separation really what Jesus was saying?

When we look closely at the words of the text we discover something interesting.  The translation we read from has Jesus saying, “Whose head is this? And whose title?” But the Greek doesn’t say “head” it says “image”.  The word is eikon, that is, ‘icon’.  So, what often goes overlooked in this question is: if the coin belongs to Caesar because his image is on it—who do you belong to?  That is, whose image are you?  It is interesting to note that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the world eikon is also used in Genesis, right where it says that God made humanity in God’s image.

So, if we are to give to God those things that are God’s, we are to give ourselves, and give ourselves entirely.

Thus, there can be no separation for us.  No convenient dividing line between the things that we do because of our faith and the things that we do because of our politics.  We are supposed to live out our faith with every aspect of our being at all times.  Not just on Sundays but on the other six days as well.

Our faith is relevant to all aspects of our lives.  Including politics.  After all, Christian faith is inherently political.  If you doubt that, reflect on the fact that our founder was executed by the state.  Had Jesus merely amassed religious enemies, he would have been stoned to death. But Jesus was crucified.  That was a Roman thing.  That was politics.  Jesus ministry had religious consequences and it had political consequences. And the Romans knew it.

But if our faith cannot be ascribed to the support of any particular political party, but we are supposed to engage with the world, what are we to do?

IV. THE CITY OF GOD

One thousand six hundred years ago this year, the city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths.  A catastrophe in the minds of the Romans.  How could such a terrible thing have happened?  How could the Eternal City have suffered such a lowly fate… at the hands of Germans?  Had the Christian God failed to save the City?  What did this say about God’s power if Rome was not protected from barbarians?

Augustine of Hippo, seeing the fleeing Roman refugees arriving in Northern Africa began to reflect on the sacking of the city.  Augustine wrote that there were two cities, two fundamental communities, the City of God and the City of Man, each of which is defined by what the object of its love.

The City of God has God as the object of its love.  The citizens of the City of God live with lives of charity and service toward all.  They live with hope as pilgrims in the world.  Israel and the Church were the examples of the City of God.

The City of the World, on the other hand, loves its own power.  The rulers of this city, and the people they rule, are dominated by the lust for domination.  They seek power to be in control.  Those who are oppressed seek power to oppress those who have oppressed them.  They strive for success, security, and an orderly life.  Babylon and Rome were examples of the City of the World.

Augustine is telling the faithful not to overly lament Rome’s fall as God’s fall.  Rome was not the City of God.  It was an earthly city.  In the same way we can understand that the political fortunes of any candidate, party, or nation do not reflect God’s fortunes.  A president isn’t elected because it’s God’s will.  A party doesn’t rise to prominence because God wanted it that way.  Nations do not become powerful because they are blessed by God.

Neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party is the party of God.  (By the way, as a cautionary note, it bears noting that “Hezbollah” translates as “party of God”—suggesting we should avoid making those kinds of associations, unless middle eastern politics is the model we’d like to start emulating in this country).  We need to remind ourselves that the Constitution is not a religious text.  The United States of America is not the Kingdom of God.  The American political system is not the Levitical priesthood.

But this is not a call for disengagement.  This is a call for engagement while grounding oneself in faith.  Augustine would teach that the citizens of the City of God would still use the things of the world as they pertain to things below, but do not make this earthly life their ultimate end.  If we are to be citizens of the City of God, we engage with the political realm, but we do not confuse the things of this world with the City of God.

All the structures of the world, including politics, are here for us to use, in order to serve one another in love and charity, to live in hope and in faith. We can and should be engaged in politics inasmuch as political choices affect the lives of millions.  But that’s a far cry from concluding that any one political party of philosophy is itself in lockstep with God’s will for us.  As human institutions, political parties are broken by sin just as we all are.

V. END

There’s one other thing about the City of God that bears noting: its citizens are known only to God.  We do not possess the capability of knowing who is a citizen of the City of God and the City of the World.  This fact alone requires us to deal with one another charitably.  It calls us to dealing with our political opponents not as demons set to destroy the people of God, but as fellow children of God, who are acting out of sincerity and a genuine attempt to live out their understanding of God’s purposes.  Now, to be sure, not everyone will be doing that, including a person’s political allies.  But as Christians, we start not from suspicion and fear, but from grace and love.

For Christian faith should neither be the unwitting stooge of a political party, nor should it be a completely disengaged community that does not involve itself in politics at all.  We should instead offer a third way.

Politics is a duty of citizenship.  But the citizenship we are called to exercise first and foremost is our citizenship in the City of God.  As citizens of that City we engage in politics, remembering it is the aim of serving one another that motivates us, not the accumulation of political power for its own sake.

As citizens of the City of God we can engage in political debate and discussion without branding our opponents as demons and opponents of God.

As citizens of the City of God we can develop political opinions and support particular political candidates, without concluding that our preferences are anything other than our own reflection, and not necessarily God’s preferences.

As citizens of the City of God we can develop communities of diversity of political belief that are united by a common love of God and one another, we don’t need to succumb to the world’s habit of partisanship and division.

As citizens of the City of God, we could fill the political arena with the genuine love of God, a love that reconciles us to God and one another.  A love that calls us to transcend the particulars of our political preferences and to create genuine community.  In so doing, we become not merely partisans, co-opted by politicians, but we become agents of transformation and healing in the world, living our lives in such a way that we more fully reflect the image of the One in whose image we are made.


[1] Kinnaman, UnChristian, Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 2008, p. 155.

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. Philip Wogaman, Christian Perspectives on Politics, p. 127

[4] Id., p. 128.

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