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Posts Tagged ‘politic’

We have been gathering on Wednesdays to read the Old Testament book of Daniel. Together, we are asking questions of the text, engaging the text, and trying to discern what the text means for a church in the twenty-first century. Surprisingly, Daniel does not encourage a particular diet or give tips on dream interpretation. Here are some things that Daniel does seem interested in;

1, the state wants us to become good citizens of the state, the state is uninterested in making disciples for Jesus.

2, it is not only a Babylonian notion to acknowledge God as a prop for the state.

3, exile continues to be a good metaphor for where we live and how we are to live today.

4, catering to a culture of power, control, and unrealistic perspectives of self can drive one to insanity.

5, it is possible to live in a pagan culture without becoming tainted by it.

6, we should care about rulers and pray for them. We should appeal to their humanness, not their sinfulness.

7, rulers and governments will continue to come and go – only God remains eternal.

8, God is ruler over kings, nations, and history.

9, the wisdom of God is superior to human wisdom, even the best Babylon has to offer.

10, God has always been a delivering, saving God.

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A host of preachers gathered at the Festival of Homiletics last week. Held in Washington D. C., it was appropriately themed “Politics and Preaching.” The festival was a weeklong series of worship and preaching and lecture. Much of our time was spent exploring the politics of the church, especially as the church responds to the politics of the world. While it was a conference about preaching for preachers, it also revealed the pulse of a significant part of the church at this point in time.

You can recognize the effort given the task at hand by some of the titles presented at the conference. “Politics of Pneuma,” “Preaching: It’s Always Political,” “Preaching to Save the Soul of the Nation,” Politics, Powers, Perils, and Pretenders,” “The Biblical Politics of Gratitude,” and “Pledging Allegiance.” There was no shortage of pointing out the systemic problems of society and ways the current political climate contributes.

Even while engaged in a strong effort, it is difficult to resist the temptation to twist the gospel into shapes that fit the story we already live in. Those who are content find it easy to ask God to bless what is going on, while those who are displeased have tendencies to call for societal change. We all have tendencies to request a word from the Lord while depending on the current political system for our salvation. On any given day we might become convinced that salvation will be attained through American politics.

The dangers of this are obvious. Slipping into partisan thinking will guarantee defensive posturing and finger pointing that result in fracturing and polarizing the body of Christ. This is an obvious departure from the politics of the kingdom. Severe division, name calling, nor alliances with Caesar are the ways of God.

The New Testament does tell of people whose politics permitted them to go to great lengths to protect their way of thinking. They were willing to go against the ways of God to protect the ways of God. It seems that zealots are alive and well in the church. Who knew that when we desire to preach the politics of Jesus it would be so easy to drift into the ways of the world? The people of God need to behave as one in Christ, no matter what our persuasion might be in lesser politics.

Listening to well-meaning preachers trying to wrestle with these issues remind us of the reality of the tension. Despite our desire to be true to kingdom politics, it is still easy to appeal to the existing structures as the way to a remedy. But to establish an alliance with the current system is only to continue the status quo. Changing which party holds the power is not the same as gospel.

It is unfortunate for the church to use the same hermeneutics as CNN and Fox News. It is not good practice to interpret the good news through a lens that strengthens some partisan story. We cannot be faithful to our calling by throwing affirmation to crowds of likeminded people. We cannot be the blessing we are supposed to be by endorsing the existing false narratives that are on the way out.

This all leads to the question – “why is the church so inclined to align itself with dominant culture?” Liberals and conservatives are both guilty of compromise by adjusting belief and behavior in order to support the power of the establishment when it fits the story we think we belong to. I am reminded that French sociologist Jacques Ellul warned “Politics is the church’s worst problem.” He goes on, “It is her constant temptation, the occasion of her greatest disasters, the trap continually set for her by the prince of this world.” To claim to believe that Jesus is King and then put our marbles in with the political structure is a tad contradictory if not hypocritical.

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We are brought together by a God who is bigger than any petty differences. We are family. We carry the news that can save the world. Yet, we still fall for the voices of culture. We not only listen to them, we hold them in high esteem. And it divides us. Our news has always been clear that the ways of the world are unable to save the world. Yet we continue to act as if they can.

It is no easy task to resist the pressures of culture. It has always been difficult to resist principalities and powers. Yet, this is not optional. When we give in to cultural pressures we choose sides and we become divided. We choose lesser, artificial, and temporary ideas about important things like salvation and community. And our choices lead to partisanship in the body.

Interestingly, the word evangelical has become news. And not the news the word evangelical is intended or accustomed to sharing. Flip on the television and find someone trying to convince you that evangelicals are an important voice in the current political landscape. Turn the channel and find someone trying to convince you evangelicals are irrational, hateful and a cancer. Whenever we begin to listen to these voices as a voice for us we are mistaken. Spoiler alert, these voices are not neutral. They say what they say to pander to whoever they think is listening.

The president has become part of the “evangelical” news. And the voices of culture are attempting to draw a line and put you on one side or the other. It is true the president has said some rash things. The president has made some ill-advised decisions. But it isn’t the president’s behavior that worries me most. It is ours. The bickering that is going on inside the church only lends credibility to the misguided ideas that salvation will come through Washington D. C. and our allegiance depends on which side of the aisle we are on.

The church is not a political action committee. This is no lobby group. Perhaps the democrats and republicans are less evil than the Nazi’s, but to align ourselves with either of them is just as bad. We already have a King. And we’ve already been told there is no room for two masters.

Participate in elections. Encourage elected officials. Pray for them. But do not bow at their altars. When you agree with politicians and when you disagree – God is still at work. Even more, God is still in control. And when you start to believe otherwise, you are worshiping at the wrong altar.

It is time to stop participating in the divisive strategies of the world. The fact is, we cannot repair what is severed on our own. We need God. We must learn to listen, learn to disagree, and learn to resist in ways that are faithful. The church must stand together and recognize the opportunity right here in front of us.

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The tax code states clearly that in order to maintain exempt status, churches may “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” This is known as the Johnson Amendment.

Presently, there is a bill underway (H.R. 172) that would allow churches to identify with a political party and to encourage others to support the political party. The stated intention of the bill is “to restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.”

Before conceding this is a good idea, one should consider the danger of the church identifying with a political party. Alignment with a political party is compromise no matter what government we are talking about. A church that aligns with government ceases to be the church. Before thinking this is a good idea we should consider the ease with which we could divide according to political philosophies. It is dangerous to gather in the name of American politics and convince ourselves if we mention Jesus we are doing the right thing. It might make things easy to mingle with those who are like minded as if we were just another caucus, but we do not gather as democrats or republicans. We gather as the people of God.

As far as free speech, the church has always been a people who say things we are not supposed to say. And we have said these things to people we are not supposed to say them to. We are not inclined to request permission from the state for things we must say. This is true whether or not we are granted the right of free speech.

We already struggle with the way power works and our desire for a piece of it. Even before the proposed repeal, too many of us have been tempted to attach to partisan preferences and join the empire. It is already too easy to think this is where the power lies. It is already too easy to think that working alongside the empire is the best way to get our message out. I am not hopeful that a repeal of the Johnson Amendment benefits the church at all.

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Each time I send in my quarterly taxes I can hear the Beatles singing in the background. “If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street, If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat. If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat, If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet. Don’t ask me what I want it for, If you don’t want to pay some more. Cause I’m the taxman…” It makes me want to cast my line in the lake and hope to catch a fish with the coin I need in its mouth.

At the same time, I hear a question asked Jesus “Do we pay taxes or not?” This reminds us that politics were alive and well in first century Palestine. The fact that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record this episode reminds us that the gospels have an interest in politics as well. And Jesus was right in on the political discussion. This is good for us to be reminded of. Especially those of us who want to believe religion is private and separate from politics and that Jesus only talks about spiritual things.

Considering the song his mother sings during her pregnancy, I suspect her lullabies may have been a little political as well. If that is the case then it is no surprise that when Jesus began ministry he began with a political announcement. A new kingdom is here!

The context we are given for Jesus birth is Caesar’s decree. At his death he is charged as a rival king. And then in between he is asked the question “Do we pay taxes or not?” There is simply no way to avoid the idea that to follow Jesus puts us in a political story.

Caesar has coins stamped in his image. Jesus asks for one of these and says something along the line of “Caesar can stamp his image on as many of these as he desires. But do not let Caesar stamp his image on you. You do not belong to Caesar.” Jesus wants to be sure we do not confuse God with Caesar. We are in a political story. And following Jesus complicates politics.

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I am struck by the amount of time the church spends talking about world leaders. Even more, I am struck by the division of Christians as they talk as if their allegiance is with one leader or another or one party over another. Still, after reading the New Testament, I cannot find the parts where the church becomes preoccupied with such conversation. If the first century Christians were debating who would succeed Tiberius as emperor, the New Testament does not show much interest. If the church divided its loyalties for and against the incoming Caligula, there is no mention of it.

Four years later, after Caligula was murdered, where is the talk about Claudius replacing him? And when Claudius banned Jews from Rome and made other important policy decisions, were there some Christians defending him and others asking for his removal? When Claudius was poisoned, did anyone in the church become obsessed with what Nero’s economic or foreign policy would be? Perhaps such conversations occurred, I cannot claim to know. But, if they did, the New Testament does not consider them worth mentioning.

Instead, the New Testament uses a lot of space to repeatedly focus on things like the death and resurrection of Jesus. While Rome appeared to rule and Caesars came and went, the New Testament remained interested in other news. I suppose conversations about emperors are not in the New Testament for a reason. It is possible the New Testament writers are only interested in the political changes that came with Jesus of Nazareth. It is possible the Christians in the first century were already aware that Caesar did not rule the world. It is possible they already realized that neither Julio-Claudians nor Flavians nor democrats nor republicans held the answers. It is possible that early Christians were convinced that if Jesus was risen the rest of this conversation was a sub point at best.

The first Christians knew their identity as Roman was not their primary identity. They knew that Rome was not the primary kingdom. They knew Caesar was not the true king. And they knew that Roman politics were not their politics. Instead, they were convinced that God had become flesh and sent the Spirit to make a new politic possible. A politic that, in our more faithful moments, we call church.

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I bet Isaiah 7.14 sounds like Christmas to you. At least it does to me. I can almost hear carols in the background while reading it. It makes me feel like I am opening a Christmas card. I feel a twinge of excitement. I think I can smell Christmas while listening to it. And then, after Isaiah sings it, Matthew sings it again – a remix.

But unlike Matthew, Isaiah was not thinking about Christmas. He was thinking about politics. He was thinking about a clash between prophet and king. He was thinking about how different the world of faith is from the world of fear.

During this time the world power was Assyria. They made the rules and made sure the rules were followed.  The neighbor kings are tired of this and try to get King Ahaz and Judah to join forces to overthrow Assyria. Isaiah goes to the king with a message and a sign. But the king knows how the world works. He knows where the power is. He ignores the request of the neighbors and tries to snuggle up with Assyria. His worst decision, he ignored the message of the prophet. He refused the sign.

The sign that Ahaz ignored becomes important. A woman will be with child. She will have a son. His name shall be Immanuel. Immanuel means literally “God is with us.” A significant part of the sign for Isaiah is timing. Before the child is old enough to know right from wrong the lands of the kings will be forsaken. It seems the child will be living without fear, enjoying meals of curds and honey. In other words, the original sign is to alert the king that God truly is with his people. When this happens – be on the lookout! Salvation is near. Unfortunately, Ahaz refused “God with us.”

Centuries later Matthew repeats the sign of the prophet and paints for us a picture. There is a woman with child. She will have a son. He shall be called Immanuel. Immanuel literally means “God is with us.” We are more familiar with this story. We know something about this child. We might feel a twinge of excitement. The sign is of great importance. When this sign occurs, when this child is born, when this happens – be on the lookout! Salvation is near. This child is the visible physical evidence that God is with us.

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