Thursday, August 27, 2009

Preaching Politics

I gave this sermon on August 23rd at All Saints Church, Carmel. The texts for the day's worship were:

Today I’d like to preach a little bit about religion and politics. Now before you all heading for the exits let me just say that I’m not doing this because there are some hot-button political issues out there right now, in the church and the nation, and I’m really steamed about something and I’ve kept my opinions to myself just about long enough. That’s not what’s going on. Instead, I came to this topic because the lectionary readings kind of forced it on me. Let’s start with the collect of the day—

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered

together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your

power among all peoples.

That, my friends, is a political prayer. Then there is this morning’s reading from Joshua. This is one of the nicer bits from Joshua, a book without a lot of nice bits, and yet we hear—

and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land; therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.

Yes, I understand that the people are renouncing other Gods of other lands, and pledging their fealty to the God of the land of promise, who acted so mightily on their behalf. But we can’t obscure the nature of the blessing that is being celebrated—the violent seizure of territory in the course of a victorious Holy War.

When people get up to preach about religion and politics, they generally set out to use the scriptures of their particular tradition to prove that one side or another in a controversy of the day is the right one, and therefore that it is our religious duty as good Muslims, or Hindus, or Jews or what have you, to join the fight. If we are going to be honest with ourselves we have to admit that Christianity has lent itself infamously well to this type of enterprise over the years. As the commercial and military expansion of European empires engulfed the globe, the bible marched alongside the gun. And this isn’t a thing of the past. About three years ago, I accepted an invitation from a neighboring faith community to attend a National Day of Prayer gathering in Devendorf Park, here in downtown Carmel. It turned out that the accent was on the National rather than the Prayer. There were prayers for God to grant conquest of the Middle East to American troops, and the conversion of the regions Muslims to Christianity. Many of the prayers that were offered that day used what sounded to me like code words for common Right Wing political causes.

Now in the interest of full disclosure I have to say that when it comes to sectarian politics my own heart is right where it belongs—on the left. And my ilk are just as susceptible to turning religious language into political cant. Words like “peace” and “social justice” and “inclusion” can become little more than ciphers for a particular political ideology. It’s insidious, it’s been going for centuries and it still is happening all the time.

No wonder that Jesus, when he realized that the crowd was coming to make him king, disappeared into the mountains.

That part of the story alone should be enough to tip us off that the Sixth Chapter of John, which we’ve been dwelling in for the past month or more has something to do with politics. I don’t think it diminishes the spiritual significance of the gospel at all to say that part of the liberating work of Jesus is to set us free from politics, or at least the kind that ensnares us, that makes it easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing the will of God when we are really serving some lesser master. The earliest Christians knew this kind of so-called “religious” language very well because they’d had it used against them, to single them out as “blasphemers” and “apostates” by Jews and as “atheists” and “enemies of the state” by agents of Rome. It would have been a temptation to fashion verbal weapons for a counterattack, and there were those even then who succumbed to that temptation, and were caught in the snare.

But faith in Jesus shows us a different way to go. It is not an escape from the world and its dilemmas and pressures into an ideal spiritual realm. A decision for Christ and the kingdom of God, means taking a stand, with real political risks and consequences. I say “political” because the words that Jesus has spoken about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, are, as we hear in the gospel, “spirit and life.” The spirit that Christ gives to those who have faith makes them come alive. It fills them with the power to face their fears, and the power to change their ways. It gives them the power to speak the truth, and the power to love people they don’t even know. It gives them the vision and hope to wager their lives on the total transformation of the social order in spite of all evidence that the powers that be are supreme and invincible. Spirit is power and life is power, and politics is about power.

Any genuine spiritual power that the church has comes from God. But this is not the God of Joshua, who takes what he wants by force and gives it to those he chooses. This is the God who calls those he chooses and gives them himself. As his members, we partake of the power of life that is the Spirit within and among us, not the power of some authority wielding the threat of death over us. For us to abide in Christ as active participants in institutional life of the world, with Christ abiding in us, is to renew the promise of politics itself, freeing it from the grip of empty slogans and entrenched positions. It is to be continually on the lookout for possibilities for hope, healing, and insight, rather than relentlessly probing the enemy for weakness. It is to be always listening for the hunger for meaning and belonging that underlies expressions of partisan aggression, and to offer the food of understanding. It is to resist evil with truth, and hatred with an unyielding kindness. To be in public like this is to confound the conventional division of Left from Right. Ironically, it is often also means inviting attack from the left and the right simultaneously. Jesus’ gift of himself to the world was so total that he willingly entered the trap of its politics, letting it close upon him, so that God’s redeeming work could happen even there.

Jesus’ willingness to suffering and die for the life of the world were his political platform, if you will, so it’s no wonder that a lot of people decided to jump off the bandwagon. You’ll notice that the Gospel gives no indication that Jesus tried to keep them from going. He doesn’t tell them they’re wrong, or that the ones who stayed are right. “No one can come to me,” he says, “unless it is granted her by my Father.” I suppose those of us who try to believe, with Peter, that Jesus is the Holy One, could take some elitist pride in our unmerited and gratuitous election. We could use as the grounds for organizing a “Christian” political party. But I love what Peter says when Jesus asks him if he’ll leave too. Not “you’ve got the best chance of winning” or “I think that of all the candidates, you will do the most to protect my interests.” No--Peter says, “Lord, you have the words of eternal life. To whom shall we go?” We should aspire to the same humility when we proclaim Jesus as the savior of the world. It’s not that we wouldn’t leave him if we could, and it’s not like we won’t betray him. It’s just that we understand how deep our predicament really is, and that we own that without the continual nourishment of God’s compassion and wisdom, all we’ve got is politics.


BARRY LOPEZ considers what is really being asked of us.
(O Magazine, April 2009, p. 156)

if we live in the inner city and can't manage
to get to the countryside, we understand
that reconnecting with what is subtle and
profound in nature can take some of the
burning out of our souls. And we know,
too, that global climate change is upon us,
indifferent to our fate and menacing on a
colossal scale.
The question now is no longer about the
old polarity between nature and culture.
The effects of nature and culture on us are
intertwined. Each lends something to the
other; together they sustain us. The better
question is: Where from here? How do we
react so smartly to the complex social and
natural threats before us that a stranger to
our planet, looking back at our history; will
be moved to call us a just, courageous, and
reverent people?
Establishing better ethical relations in
every quarter of our lives-political, social,
environmental-is arguably the starting
point, one that will require, first, an instinct
for reconciliation. Instead of the numbing
rhetoric of"us" and "them," we will have to
invent a new kind of "we." It's the "we" al-
ready welling up in many of us, born out of
empathy, out of genuine love for each other
and the Earth, and out of sober assessments
about our predicament. It's a grittier, less
jingoistic "we," born of hard work.
We hear too often now that times are
rough. Considering global climate change
alone, we can argue convincingly that, in
fact, we're in a far worse spot than those
who have come before us. There are threats
to our physical and mental well-being on
the horizon the like of which humanity has
known only in the most limited way. These
unanticipated developments -collapsing
ocean fisheries, the human disturbance of
viral ecologies, the accumulation of non-
biodegradable plastic- are, rather suddenly
a scary part of everyone's everyday life. And
our apprehension, too, is of a different order than, say,
the fears of Europeans during the spread of
the Black Death or of peasants throughout history;
living precariously before nature's forces and at
the whim of despots. It's an apprehension calling
for something untapped in us.
What we need is uncommonly mature
people. A kind of courage is required we've
not seen before, that "we" in us that wants
to make a simple bow of recognition, with-
out judgment, toward all other people
caught in the same travail, and then simply
to start the work. As individuals we can,
each of us, assess our own faiths and beliefs,
measure our stores of energy; take account
of our own pressing personal responsibili-
ties, and then respond, inventing together
another way of life, one less harmful, less
cruel than the one we have now
We risk trying one another's patience
when we put too fine a point on precisely
which threats we face as a species or make
overbearing claims about the divine attri-
butes of"nature." Simply put, the impact of
human enterprise on nonhuman systems
has created an unusual and strange urgency;
In a relatively short time, we're going to
learn whether we are indeed a match for the
various threats science enumerates. We are
going to find out whether we can actually be
as empathetic toward one another, as toler-
ant, as imaginative as we believe we can.
To develop less cruel and better gov-
erned societies, we're going to have to begin
by trading in the old questions about what
kinds of darkness are forcing us into the fu-
ture and ask instead another question:
What is calling to us? What lies buried in
our destiny that is calling out to us now?
I look at my own task as a writer and hu-
manitarian and know this one thing: With-
out other men and women, hard at work
devising a safer future for every life on Earth,
my task is like the song of a man living alone
in a box: beautiful, perhaps, but of no great.
help to humanity. I need these men and
women. Before long, each of us will be look-
ing to our right and to our left for eyes that
we can believe in. It is with these women
and men that we will initiate the work that
will impel those still to come, including our
children, to praise us-and to understand
the fierceness of our determination that
they not be born in vain because, facing
great threats, we fell down.
Barry Lopez has traveled to more than 60 countries and worked on international humanitarian projects with Mercy Corps and Quest for Global Healing.

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.