Friday, October 31, 2008

Do We Need Churches to Tell us How to Vote?

I wrote this eight years ago, during the presidential campaign that brought "Dub-yah" to power. I've changed some over the past few years, and I certainly would write some parts of it very differently now (bearing in mind the original audience though, I'm not really sure what I would change), but I think the original premise still stands. I offer it today, since I fear "electioneering from the pulpit" will be rampant this weekend!

We Christians are in danger of being co-opted by worldly power, or let us say, an illusion of power. What we need is perspective that we might not confuse the Kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this world. All the good that human political systems can create is only a distant echo of the platform of Jesus. In our rightful concern for the world, we are tempted to believe political agendas can somehow undo problems rooted in humanity’s self-centered, fallen nature. Christians must to be guided by faith when it comes to the ballot box while bearing in mind the limitations of all human institutions.

Let’s be clear, Christians do differ on things of great importance. At the same time, let us recognize that one of the greatest problems facing the Church is the idea that “values diversity” should be the guiding principle of Community of the Faithful. A “values diversity” theology is notably absent in the apostolic history of the Church. For the vast majority of her history, the Church has sensed that there is a “way which seems right to humans, but that way ends in death.” Relegating Christian ethics to the category of mere opinion is sure to lead us all somewhere we don’t want to go. If all the church has to offer is advice, what sets her apart from a good self-help book?

The Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was established to serve as a voice for God. If I understand the New Testament correctly, diversity in the Church is certain and acceptable. Yet, that hardly means that we are to construct an individual theology without reference to our sisters and brothers. The same apostle who defends diversity and freedom of thought also gives clear ethical and theological guidance for his day and our day as well. Say what we will, one would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that historic orthodox Christianity in any fashion held right and wrong to be an individual affair. The path of everyone doing and believing what is right “in his/her own eyes” is dangerous one we journey at our own peril.

In view of our diversity, the need of guidance from the church and our responsibilities as citizens, we would be well served by heeding the words of Jesus. The Master directs, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what belongs to God.” In the short phrase, Christ gives us three principles that can serve as a guide for us in this election year to help us steer a safe and balanced course in the wilderness of politics and the public square.

First, Jesus’ words imply that there is a sphere where Caesar rightly claims authority. That authority has been given to governments by God. Paul reminds us that in some unique way government carries out God’s will. In the context of his times, Paul was speaking of a cruel government that dealt harshly with its enemies, was intolerant of criticism, and persecuted Christians. Still, that very government served a divinely ordained function in that it kept order and provided structure to society.

As Christians living a society with a government “by the people and for the people,” we want to ensure that our government is as just and upright as possible. God claims special investment in the poor, the oppressed, and the dispossessed. What can we do but support such a platform? The question of “how” is where we find ourselves stuck. Peace is a goal articulated throughout the Bible. But how do we bring it to pass? You might hold to a view that peace is best ensured by military endeavors. Others may argue for a cooperative, cautious, diplomatic emphasis. On this we may well differ.

Secondly, there is something which belongs to God alone. That “something” is our absolute allegiance. Our allegiance to God calls into question all other allegiances. As Peter confronted the very government that the early Christians were directed to obey, respect, and pray for, he made a telling point. “We must obey God rather than people.” If that was true of a totalitarian regime; isn’t it even more so of a representative democracy? While we may give our vote to a certain candidate, our hearts must belong to God. The claim of God on people stands in judgment of all political systems. God alone is truly just.

Lastly, Jesus realizes we tend to get things “mixed-up.” We tend to put our hopes in human systems. We are tempted to “create” God’s reign by the power of politics and government. The line gets fuzzy. Let’s think about this in a realistic fashion. I cannot recall many politicians running on the platform of the “moral high ground” that haven’t been “found-out” in some respect. We affirm the limitations of humanity and the fallen nature of all human systems even as we lend our vote to those people and systems. Giving unqualified support is blurring the line of demarcation.

Like the government, the Church is founded on divine authority but occupies a different terrain. As God’s mouthpiece in the world, it always stands in prophetic judgment of all the politics of humans. The story of the Barmen Confession and the Confessing Church make this very clear. In Hitler’s Germany we see a church co-opted by the state. Hitler was a Bible thumper and Bible quoter when that role served to his advantage. The majority of the German church got on the bandwagon of national idolatry. In this, they were led by the clergy. Those refusing to blur the line of distinction paid dearly. The history of the German church and the story of those who refused to “go along” still speak of the lure of power and the danger of syncretism.

As an institution uniquely charged to speak on God’s behalf, the pulpit becomes Holy Ground. We must be careful not to profane that Holy Ground by mixing-up the two institutions and the mission to which each is called. The history of ancient Israel is one of mixing and God’s constant call to “come out” of the world and be holy. That call does not mean to forget about the world. The less we are “of the world” the more God’s love will call us to be “in the world;” engaging it, loving it in Christ’s name.

Our task before all others is to preach the Cross; to preach Christ and Christ crucified. When we preachers take off our shoes and stand on God’s Holy Ground, we must remember our mission. A big part of that mission is to proclaim the ethics of Christ. I will always unashamedly proclaim life. God is all about life. The “wages of sin is death.” “The gift of God is life.”

I am also certain about the dangers of mixing the two Kingdoms. I realize the “how” of standing for life in the political arena is an area where honest Christians differ. There is a urgent necessity to recall the distinction between the gospel and the plans of humans; to recognize the dangers of mixing salvation and voting. We are called to lift up Jesus that all people might be drawn to him. Redemption transcends all political and national distinctions.

What does this mean in practice? I think it means that we do not hand out voter’s guides. They may claim nonpartisan, helpful intent (A claim I don’t buy at all!). Still it is “mixing” the things of Caesar and God. It also means that we will “watch it” in Sunday school and Bible study. Over the years I have heard many political agendas supported in those arenas. These agendas have been both from “the left” and “the right.” Attempting to maintain a consistent, as opposed to narrowly defined, pro-life stance, I have often felt myself at odds with such speeches. I want to give a counterpoint. And then? A point to counter my point. In the end, we have a good old political argument. I either go away mad because we’ve been fighting it out or from holding my tongue and letting you have your say. Is this what our Sunday schools and Bible studies are meant to be?

We preachers must speak as God directs, giving moral guidance. Yet, we must avoid “adding to.” If we think ourselves prophetic in delivering a message that gives guidance for political decision making, but folks feel alienated, especially unbelieving folks, have we served the cause of Christ? We may pat ourselves on the back for our great courage and boldness. But remember we have captive audiences, and that implies responsibility. We, more than others, must make a strict account how we use that trust from God.

Mom always told me that the two topics that can most endanger friendships are religion and politics. In this election year we are swimming in the ocean of both more than ever before. Our nation is at a place of moral decline. We are members of a great political experiment, government by and for the people. We cannot and should not divorce our voting from our faith. We recognize the limitations of politics. When it comes to things political, folks are of many stripes and often deeply opinionated. We must not “add to” the gospel. In the name of the Lover of All Souls, let us give Caesar what is rightfully Caesar’s but render to God what belongs to God and God alone!

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