Thursday, March 05, 2009

"We are all united, whether we are religious or leftists...."

As I'll be saying in a moment, this is the kind of discussion where everyone should put down the scriptural references and walk away.* That would include me. So I know I shouldn't, but I smell some kind of gauntlet being thrown down here:

The inevitable result of that is a decided ambivalence about, and often uselessness in, secular politics. I say "ambivalence" because, contra H. Richard Niebuhr, Christians cannot completely relinquish the political life. We live in a political world, as one prophet says. While we might reject the totality of its claims, the fact is that we do still need to negotiate through them. Even the Amish have to "play politics" to maintain their peaceable kingdom.

Beyond that, where two or three are gathered, there shall be politics. I've made this point before, but it's worth repeating. For all that Christians like to make politics out to be a dirty word, it is on one level simply the art of making decisions. Families have politics, so do churches. They also have imbalances of power which need to be worked through. In whatever community Christians find themselves, they are charged with acting "gently and reverently," as Peter instructs us.

So Christians may not be responsible for making sure history comes out right, but we are caught in its warp and woof, and we are responsible to one another. Politics: can't live with 'em, can't walk away from them.

The good news is that we don't have to be nasty about how we participate in politics. Our "authentic humanity" is to bring the love ethic to the world around us, albeit imperfectly.
Well, not so much a challenge to me personally, as a challenge to sound reasoning. Let's start with the problem of how not to be nasty:

More punching down from the escaped circus freak Rod Parsley and his flying monkey squad:
Anytime somebody like Rod Parsley - whose ordination consists of allegedly having a "sword of anointing" passed on from another revivalist, who lives in sumptuous wealth, whose family all seems to live in sumptuous wealth, who has been sued multiple times and had to settle lawsuits against his own father and teachers at his church, who lives in the pocket of war-mongers and free-market dogmatists, who wants to establish a theocratic government - anytime Rod Parsley wants to compare notes with me on what the penniless itinerant preacher and Prince of Peace Jesus Christ had to say on abortion, I'd be happy to consult with him. Until that time, he can stick his definition of orthodoxy where the sun don't shine.
Until he's actually willing to debate, and until his anonymous goon squad is willing to direct people to what I actually said, rather than their summary of it, I've got to work off the assumption that they're a bunch of freaking cowards who don't have the courage of their convictions.
If Shuler, Jordan, Parsley and his shaved apes want to redeem themselves, they can always take a brave position. For example, they could advocate for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. It'd almost certainly drive the abortion rate through the floor, and it's in keeping with the scriptural admonition that there is no male nor female in Christ.
Well, maybe we shouldn't start there. And we certainly don't want to get into "scriptural admonitions." That could get damned awkward. I've gotta say, however, in Pastor Dan's defense, calling someone's blog a "'faith-based' based blog" is a pretty cheap shot, and would upset anybody. But "shaved apes"? Really?


Digging straight into this, and taking up Neibuhr's point (Reinie's, not H. Richard's; I'll save the misinterpretation of the author of Christ and Culture for another time) about politics, let's start with the distinction between familial or even ecclesial politics, and national politics. They sound alike ("politics"), but the similarity pretty much ends there. Politics isn't really an "art" of making decisions. More properly, it's a system for employing power. And it's in play whether you are an autocratic leader with almost absolute authority (a king, an emperor, a priest, Herr Pastor in the old E&R church that is one of the roots of my UCC), or whether you are the first among equals in a group struggling to be as egalitarian as possible. Sometimes politics isn't even about making decisions; but it's always about who has the power, and how they get to wield it. Of course, the problem with power is that power always an inevitably wields you. But we've had that discussion before. And I don't mean to condemn Pastor Dan here; this is more a problem of wrestling with pigs or, in the more famous aphorism, battling with dragons. Still, on the question of ecclesiastical politics, it gets its first rule in the Gospel of Matthew:

And if thy brother sin against thee, go, show him his fault between thee and him alone: if he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he hear thee not, take with thee one or two more, that at the mouth of two witnesses or three every word may be established. And if he refuse to hear them, tell it unto the church: and if he refuse to hear the church also, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican. Verily I say unto you, what things soever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what things soever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father who is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. Matthew 18:15-20
It's a fairly simple system; one any church would be wise to put into practice. But it obviates the practice of politics, because it doesn't preference one set of people over another. It doesn't give power to those who have been there the longest, or whose family roots are the deepest, or who have attended more meetings, brought more meat and food, stayed awake through more sermons, given more than others. It also brings all questions to light and places everyone under the microscope, which is an examination politics, at the level of the church or the level of the federal government, abhors. Everyone wants their privacy. Everyone cherishes their closed door meetings, their private agreements, their fealty to another or fealty from another. Yes, Christianity recognizes politics. And it seeks to undo it.

O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? I want to learn only this from you: did you receive the Spirit from works of the law, or from faith in what you heard? Are you so stupid? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things 5 in vain?--if indeed it was in vain. Does, then, the one who supplies the Spirit to you and works mighty deeds among you do so from works of the law or from faith in what you heard? Thus Abraham "believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendant, heirs according to the promise.
Christianity, in brief, may recognize the reality of politics; but it is about something, and not just an "alternative," to wrestling over who has the "power." Because power is all that politics is about. Which is pretty much why Jesus said "Give Caesar what is Caesar's, and God what is God's." So let's start with the point that the coin he was holding at the time had a picture of Caesar on it, and already Caesar had claimed he was divine (which was what established the social order of the Empire, and made its actions just). If you give Caesar what is Caesar's, you give him back his coin, and be done with it. And then if you give God what is God's, what have you given? What, after all, doesn't come from God? But if you identify all things as coming from God, then you give all things to God. Isn't that what the directive is? And if you give all things to God, doesn't that mean you give even politics, even power and security and sanctity and trust, to God? After all, what doesn't come from God? And if I give that to God, what, in this lesson, am I allowed to hold back? What I have given to Caesar? I've given that away, too. So what am I left with?

A pearl of great price, for which I've sold everything? A lost coin I've spent oil looking for in the dark, rather than waiting for sunrise? A lost sheep I left 99 alone in order to find? These are all lessons about God and the basiliea tou theou; somebody please tell me what these teachings have to do with politics.

I know, I know; nothing more than a difference of opinion, and we're all allowed our disparate opinions; even Rod Parsley, even Pastor Dan, even me. But it’s a matter of what’s most important; and politics should not trump Christianity.

Which doesn’t mean there is no room for social justice, or social change. Coincidentally, as I was finishing this post I was listening to an interview with Frank London of the Klezmatics. He said (I can only paraphrase him, poorly) that the music they chose to play was party music, but party music as Bob Marley meant it: conscious partying. Have fun, he meant, but try to change the world while doing so. Have fun, but do so with an eye to making the world more just, more fair, everyone being treated more equally. He also mentioned a Hasidic tradition of worshipping with joy. (The post title, by the way, is from a traditional song he mentioned in the interview.)

Funny, I don’t know of any religious tradition that involves worshipping with politics.

Politics can be joy, of course; especially when you win. But you celebrate your victory; the joy is in succeeding in the struggle. Maybe the joy is in the struggle, but the point of the struggle is to win power for yourself, for your “side,” for your ideas. It is the antithesis of the basileia tou theou: in politics, the first are always first, and someone else is always last; and as long as it isn’t you, you celebrate. When it is you, you plan how to make yourself first again.

And I really don't know what that has to do with the basiliea tou theou. Or even the invitation to buy food without money, and drink without price. Which is a better question to direct to Rod Parsley than any I could ever come up with.

*To be completely fair, if you follow Pastor Dan's second link, you get Rod Parsley explaining that his lavish lifestyle is all for the glory of God, because he gets to reach so many people by living so comfortably. It's a funny argument, because everyone has heard of the homeless, itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, or his later disciple who wandered the Roman Empire begging for money for the church in Jerusalem and making his living sewing fishing nets, but in a generation, who will have heard of Rod Parsley or remember his teachings? But hey, that's unfair, too, right? On the other, other hand, "God's Profits" is as old as simony and Annanias and Sapphira (Acts 5). So Ecclesiastes is right: there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

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