Faith & Politics

donkeyelephantcrossChurches everywhere need help with faith and politics these days.  On the one hand, partisan perspectives seep into our faith communities without us looking.  There’s really nothing we can do about it.  The animosity between “liberals” and “conservatives” is part of our culture.  (I put them in quotation marks to remind us that these are labels, not people.)   It’s impossible for “independents” and “centrists” to even state their politics without them.  The opposition inherent in partisanship defines how people speak, think, and interpret any political statement or issue.  It’s nearly impossible to navigate faith and politics without it.

Pastors and leaders can try to mitigate the tensions by reminding members to leave politics out of the pews and pulpit.  They can try to keep church a safe place, reminding parishioners that the Gospel is neutral or knows no single party.   And, to some degree, this is partially right.

The Gospel doesn’t align with any one party or political ideology exclusively.  One way to interpret the history of Israel in the bible is to see it through this lens.  Proper worship and faithfulness to God’s covenant can’t be reduced to one form of rule or ruler.  Likewise, to allow God’s Word or will to be reduced to any one party, candidate, or ideology is equally objectionable.  It would amount to idolatry.

The second commandment is clear that we’re allowed no images or representations for God…as if they were God.   The effect of this commandment is far reaching.  For people of faith, there no place the prohibition of images makes more sense than in the realm of politics.   It holds theological truth and wisdom.  No idea, image, or representation of God can replace the mystery of God and humility before faith in a living God.  Reducing proper worship of God to belief in a political party, candidate, or ideology ultimately betray God and the heart of faith.

faithpoliticsscreenshotOn the other hand, no disciple of Jesus can cooperate with the belief that the Gospel is not political.   This is simply wrong scripturally, theologically, and historically.   The Gospel is political and always was.  Christianity has much to repent for in its politics.  But, simply erasing its political dimensions and calling is not acceptable or desirable.  The deep mystery of Christian spirituality and truth of faith in Christ only make sense when understood in political terms.  Faith and politics are something every Christian must wrestle with like Jacob and the angel (Genesis 32:22-31).  Jacob emerged from this wrestling as Israel, the name given to the people of God.  (He was also in a bit of pain.)   Faith cannot escape its relationship with politics, and it shouldn’t try.

There is great temptation in Western Christianity to “spiritualize” faith, which essentially has meant to erase its concrete political, economic, and social meaning.  But, this is nearly impossible.  Terms like “Lord,” “Kingdom of God,” “Prince of Peace,” even “Christ” make little to any sense without understanding them in their historical political context, and understanding them explicitly as political terms.

The term politics is related to polis, which is the ancient Greek term for the city-state.  This is where the term get its meaning for belonging to a people and land, and living under a rule or form of governance.  Western politics is deeply influenced by political concepts that permeate biblical scripture such as the rule of law, sovereignty, and freedom.

The question is not whether Christian faith is political.  Rather, the question is how is it political.  What kind of politics does God require?  What kind of politics does the Gospel make possible?  holy_week How do we interpret the Gospel’s invitation to live under the Lordship of Jesus as our true ruler and King?  How do we interpret scripture regarding the purpose and fulfillment of creation – including all human relationships?  What does Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection as Christ reveal to us regarding the way Christ’s community worships, lives, witnesses, and engages the world around it?   These questions go to the heart of the Gospel and its politics.

Ultimately, answers to these questions are not finally answerable.  What I mean is that these are not abstract questions with answers that are frozen – once and for all – in time.  Rather, these faith questions are essential for any disciple.  Asking them and answering them is a faith-task that is ongoing.

Any church that proclaims Jesus Christ or his community on earth must ask and answer these questions as a simple matter of discipleship.  In addition, Christians must ask them and answer them in the context in which they live their faith.  Political issues surround us, which call for the church’s witness.  The church must live out its own unique politics where it is.  This is the call of the Gospel and Christian discipleship: to be Christ’s community in the world and witness to what God has made possible in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the end, faith is not separate from politics.  Quite the contrary, they two are intimately related to one another.

Christ’s community is called to cultivate its own politics.  The church’s politics will be unique and related to, but ultimately different from, the world around it.  Why?  The church’s politics are founded on its best understanding of the Gospel.  The Gospel, simply put, is the God’s revelation of love and grace for the world  (this world).  This is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.  In him, all can be reborn to see the truth of themselves, what new is life possible, the fulfillment 0f creation and reconciliation of human relationships.   This is the Kingdom of God’s love and justice which the world has yet to fully know.

In addition, the church’s witness of faith draws it into the world of politics.  In other words, God’s love for the world draws Christ’s body today into the world’s political issues.  This includes its partisanship with all its tensions.  Here, the church’s call is to the witness of Christ’s peace and justice in the work for a new humanity.  This means the transformation of human relations and communion with the earth.  In Christ, ethnic and racial differences, differences in station or class, even gender and sexual differences are no longer (Galatians 3:23-29) decisive.  Likewise, partisan differences aren’t either.

What is decisive is the world God has made possible.  For the prophets, just like for Christians, that has everything to do with politics.  If Christian faith means anything today, it will find its expression in human politics.  That’s the call and witness of the Good News.

a moment’s meditation: yearning for more

deep to deepSince finishing my formal studies in 2010, I’ve been on a journey.   First, I moved from Chicago to Graceland University, Lamoni, IA, to be the Director of Religious Life and campus minister in 2011.  I’ve spent the last three years settling into this position: learning Graceland’s current institutional culture, getting to know the students who come to GU, developing the courses I’m teaching, and finding my alchemical vision for Christ’s mission and Community of Christ’s mission on campus.   These responsibilities, and other denominational activities, have thoroughly absorbed the last three years of my life.

Beginning my fourth year, I can’t say “I’ve arrived.” I’m still navigating these areas and learning things.   But, I’ve come to a place where I have my bearings and some sense of direction.  I’ve identified areas that I think need long-term attention and collaboration.  I better know my circle of influence verses my circle of control.  I find meaning in daily life among students and colleagues at Graceland.  I also have more opportunities to be present with Margo and my two daughters at home.  Katy, my oldest, is a teenager this year.  She’ll be a freshmen in high school a year from now.  Kenzlee, my younger daughter, began middle-school this year.  Both are in sports and playing two instruments.  My best friend and wife, Margo, loves her faculty position in the Gleazer School of Education at Graceland, and has been working on an Ed.D. year-round for three years from Drake University.   Currently, she is writing her dissertation.  Journeying to this point has been exhausting, but meaningful.   As I consider the future and try to navigate work and family, I still have a dull nagging feeling within me.  It’s like the murmuring of a still small voice trying to speak, or the distracting feeling of drips of water landing on the back of my neck.

I believe that living a whole spiritual life means responding to the s/Spirit within us that yearns to give birth to something.   I call it “s/Spirit” because this fountain of life-giving and life-bearing energy is God’s Life and Creativity entwined indistinguishably with our own.  It is a summons to live a life of freedom and creativity.  That s/Spirit within us is the creative energy or vision, impulse of inspiration, and quietude of potential that haunts our working mind and resting moments.  Paying attention to that s/Spirit at work within us leads us to what our spirituality is about.

I don’t point to that s/Spirit, however, to be prescriptive.  This isn’t about giving advice.  You and I have heard enough from the spiritual marketplace and its self-help culture.  We know how much it tells us that we need to express ourselves freely.  We must connect with our inner-child, play and live creatively.  We’re too busy, paying attention to the wrong things.  The voices go on:  blah, blah, blah…..

OK. Fine.  Maybe.

But, spirituality is not just another thing to do. <sigh>

When I stop and pay attention to that “dull nagging” desire in me, I don’t miss the obvious.  I don’t miss the fact that my family and daughters are, quite literally, part of this “birthing” in my life.  They are part of my life’s work.  They call forth my disciplined and creative energies.   Miraculously, Katy and Kenzlee are forming into generous, crazy, obstinate, and surprising young persons right before me every day.

I also don’t overlook that my work at Graceland is creative.  It, too, takes creative energies and inspiration.  It, too, gives life.  But, apparently, there is something more or missing.

The dull nagging or spiritual drip that’s thudding on my neck as I hunch over focused on “today’s tasks” keeps coming.  It doesn’t frustrate me or give me angst.  drop-of-waterI think I just need

to try to listen to that small voice, or pay attention to that refreshing drip pooling on me.   The distraction could be life-giving.  To disregard this nagging in the name of busyness, or to appease some insatiable need for productivity, only keeps my life locked in a cycle of deadlines and want for mindless entertainment.   So draining.  Still, “deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls,” Psalm 42: 7 says, “all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.”  Maybe that’s what I’m yearning for.

christian or not, an invitation to Lent

Lent began March 5, Ash Wednesday.  I’m a bit late.  But so many of us aren’t familiar with Lent or the reason for Lent.  Considering the busyness of American life, I think Lent is more relevant and necessary than Christmas.   So, here’s an invitation to consider the Lenten season:

hero_double_filletPerhaps you’ve noticed every year about this time:  For a limited time, Wendy’s offers its Artic Cod.  Burger King pushes its BK Big Fish.  Some McDonalds locations even offer a double Filet-O-Fish.  The new push in fast food offerings is more visible in larger cities, but the reason is actually almost 1700 years old and observed world-wide.    Even America’s fast food chains observe the Christian season of Lent, though their reasons may not be the same as ours.

Of course, individual and institutional interest in Lent varies tremendously.

Perhaps, you see yourself as some kind of Christian but you don’t even think about Lent.  Perhaps, you come from a Protestant background and subconsciously associate Lent with Catholicism so you’ve never really observed it.  Perhaps you couldn’t care less about Christianity or organized religion or Lent.  Perhaps religious traditions creep you out – with its smells & bells, and seemingly narrow minded people.

Regardless of your religious views, Lent might be a gift in your life.   The season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday (March 5), and it will continue through Easter (April 20).  With the haste and pace of life, I think you’ll find the Spirit of Lent meaningful and its intentions important to our lives and life together.

Lent is a time of self-reflection, reconciliation, anticipation, and renewal.  If a week were a year-long, the 40-days of Lent would be like a long Sunday.

human-pretzelLent is a time to think about life, all its commitments, what actually consumes your energy and consumes your time.  It’s a time to take inventory of your life life you would a treasure chest – like a scrapbook of memories of your child’s first 8 years or a long-forgotten box of your great grandma’s belongings.

Think about the relationships in your life. Which ones are broken or strained?  Who do you miss in your life?  Where does your heart yearn for reconciliation.  This could be your relationship with God, spirituality, or church.  It could be an old friend or family member.  Lent is a time of anticipating new life.  Taking inventory of broken relationships and old wounds is important because they can receive new life again.

Think about all the things that fill your time and attention day-to-day.   Personal or professional demands, endless emails, immature people, over-committed coworders, the budget crunch, running to kids activities, house hunting or house repairs, laundry, escape into TV shows, and screens that bombard us with both emptiness and activity.

Think of one thing you could live without, that perhaps your dependent on.  Fast from it to make room for something nutritious to your soul, good for your heart, or just plain more meaningful to you.  Send a brief email to your child or old friend daily; Tell them how you feel.    Read scripture or poetry, even for 10 minutes at the beginning or end of your day.  Listen to music that moves you.   Take time to find deeper meaning in the moments of your day.

It’s difficult at first, but it actually does feel better than running through your to-do list or getting through to the next thing.

sprout in concreteLastly, believe that every year the earth rebirths itself in spring.  There is a reason that Lent bridges winter and spring, and Easter is celebrated after the end of the winter season.  The earth renews itself and we can renew ourselves.  The story is that even God confronts life’s pain and horrors, suffers and dies, and comes to life again.  Call it the circle of life.  Call it hope in the darkness.  Call it the promise of morning.  Call it grace and the miracle of new life.  Trust on it.  Bank on it.  Anticipate it.  Prepare for it.  Don’t ignore it and let the opportunity go by.  That’s what Lent is for.

Together, this is the meaning of Lent.   It’s an ancient wisdom that began over 1700 years ago before denominations, TV evangelists, or even most of the world could read.  It’s an invitation to self-reflection, reconciliation, anticipation and renewal.

Maybe it’s not so wacky.  You’re invited to consider the meaning of this season for your own life.

If nothing else, sometime before Easter order a double Fish Filet.

Where’s the Protest? – Another Look at Palm Sunday

The Gospel for today, Palm Sunday – Luke 19:28-40

“After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden.  PS-1Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.'”

Let’s consider the Gospel reading in light of what’s happening to children of color in urban areas across America.  The following quote is from this NPR article.  It includes a quote from Emily Dowell of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

On the national stage, civil rights activists argue that school closings are disproportionately hurting poor, minority communities. Everywhere Dowdall looked, she says, school closings are displacing poor, black and Latino students.

“It’s not isolated in one or two cities that have lost lots of population. It’s actually very common even in cities that are seen as economic successes, like Washington, D.C., like Chicago,” she says.

Why doesn’t this make us indignant?  If Hollywood produced a movie about this reality, it would have a hero.  The movie would tap our memories of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the countless everyday-people who fought for a different American than this.  It would tap our moral indignation.  The hero would make a difference…

…and we would feel like we got our money’s worth.

My frustration this Palm Sunday is that we are not angry.  Moreover, our consumer culture of attitudes and Facebook activism makes is nearly impossible to make a difference.   Our system of self-governance is immune.  America’s racism is less overt and 10x more passive.  It is structural, submerged in a wash of economics of self-interest, infotainment, culturally-accepted self-centeredness.   America now expresses its racism, classism, and inequality in fullview as necessity because we accept it.  We add the necessary neglect and indifference.

Moral indignation has lost its marriage to hope.

This Palm Sunday, I’d like to offer a different view of this Christian observant to those who are willing to hear it.

Today, Christians worldwide celebrate Palm Sunday. Yet, many of us fail to understand and relive its meaning.

Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem is not triumphant. It is the opening scene to a political confrontation. His riding in on a donkey and public fanfare was an affront to Rome and Jerusalem’s governors. Unlike many of us today, many people enjoined Jesus. The climax of Jesus’ confrontation with the powers-at-be is Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple and Jesus’ interrogation in front of the crowd regarding taxes.  Temple authorities had colluded with Rome for their own security and self-interest. Ceasar’s face on the coin designated Ceasar ruler and savior, a direct affront to both first and second commandments for any and every Jew present. Jesus handles these confrontations masterfully, indicting his interrogators with his own questions and speaking truth to power. This is why he ends up killed.

From University of Wisconsin-Madison archives

Today, let’s celebrate Palm Sunday by being honest about the ways Christians and Christianity have colluded and accommodated empire and the powers-that-be. Let’s take a risk and join the people in the street celebrating that someone is willing to do something about it.

….or at least take the time to express our indignation and blog about it.

what it means to kill a messiah (Good? Friday)

I wrote this text for the Good Friday observance, 4/6/12 at 2:00am (midnight), at Graceland University

On Good Friday, we remember a crucifixion.  The death of Jesus is not strictly a religious event.    A deeper question is, “What does it mean to kill a messiah?”  This question opens up the meaning of Jesus’ death for Christians and non-Christians alike.

Image

Paul Elledge (http://www.iphoneonceaday.com)
Image 217/365 – 2011

With honesty and imagination, the death of Christ reveals more than religious truths. It reveals the nature of life, our world, and power.   Jesus’ death reveals the way things are and the way things can be.

In Jesus’ time, religion did not exist as it does today.  There was nothing private, unbelievable or supernatural about crucifixion.  Crucifixion was public death.  It was factual, brutal, personal and political.   It was reserved for insurrectionists, criminals against the state, and slaves who were not submissive and disobedient.

Hope, however, did exist as it does today.   Among the Jews lived an ancient and defiant hope.  It was a hope for liberation from captivity and oppressive power; hope for peace in a world of violence;  hope for change in the rage for justice; hope to be remembered after being forgotten.    

The word “messiah” was the Hebrew word for the one anointed to bring about this hope and make it a reality – to live and embody it in life.   Good Friday remembers the day that the messiah that had come, at human hands, died.    The events around his killing tell us about our world and life together.

The consensus of the crowd to kill Jesus shows the horrors of group-think in political processes.    Today, persons without names and faces, in institutions and on country sides, suffer and die due to little more than others’ consent. 

The trial that convicted Jesus reveals the power of human blindness and frailty of human justice.  Today, individuals and families hang in the balance of courts, personal prejudices, and the promise of justice by due process.  Like Jesus, often persons are victims of prejudice, racism, and indifference.

The Temple leaders that conspired against Jesus feared him and failed him.  The empire that carried out his crucifixion claimed it was divine and its purpose, peaceful.    Pax Romana – Roman Peace – was founded on the self-righteousness, exploitation, and violence expressed in the cross.   Violence and “Might makes right” authored its peace.

Every year, we remember Jesus’ death not just to be religious, but to remember the nature of every human failure, every injustice, every tragic ending, every victim, and all unnecessary suffering.   The death of hope – living breathing like the messiah – is an ongoing reality.

We remember the failure of the Temple priests not because it was the failure of the Jews, but to remember the failure of every religious institution, every religious person, and corruption of all religious idolatry.  Good Friday presses us to dare the questions, “If a messiah were to come, would we recognize her or him today?  Are not we the body of the messiah alive today?”

We remember crucifixion not to romanticize violence, but to remember the violence behind every empire including our own.  Pilate sentenced Jesus to death in order to preserve himself.  He neglected his innocence for the sake of convenience and false peace.   It is easier to hold onto power than to uphold equity, mercy, and justice in our world today.  

On Good Friday, we remember the death of innocence, unnecessary poverty, environmental degradation, human neglect, and sanctioned violence.  We do not separate ourselves from unjust conditions.   In Jesus, there is every tortured body, every beaten wife, every hungry child, every abused person, abandoned soul, and victim of injustice. 

We remember the death of a messiah today.