St. Paul’s – Proper 24 – 10/16/22
Religion and politics. Yep.
We’re going there. Should the church be mixed up in politics? Since the Bible, nowhere mentions democracy, or republicans, or democrats… should religion, be kept on one side of a firewall and politics on the other? Is the gospel a-political so that politics can only corrupt it and distort it? Or on the other hand should churches today insist that the gospel is inherently political right from the start. And what does all this mean for the church itself?… What does it mean for the kind of mission the church is and the kind of mission it can become
To get us oriented, let’s start with a famous story from the gospels. There are versions of this story in Matthew, Mark and Luke about some religious leaders trying to trip Jesus up. They asked him in front of a crowd: Tell us, should we pay taxes to the Emperor or not.
It’s a no-win situation. Not so much, a question as a trap. If Jesus says, yes, that will likely rile up the crowds who don’t have much love for the Roman occupation. They’ll be outraged and turn on Jesus or at least walk away. But if Jesus says, no, we shouldn’t pay taxes to the emperor. Well, the Roman authorities will soon enough have him arrested. So the question seems to put Jesus in a bind. How he responds is pretty fascinating and contains a key for how we might think about religion and politics today, He says: bring me a coin. Kind of an odd request under the circumstances but since we’re talking about paying taxes I guess it kind of makes sense. So somebody rustles up a coin and brings it forward. And Jesus says: all right whose image is on the coin. And they say, The emperor’s and Jesus says, watch him now…… Now give to the emperor, what belongs to the emperor, which seems to suggest that he’s saying yes we should pay Imperial taxes but then he adds and give to God what belongs to God.
Now, what does that mean? That little addendum. Those eight words… they upend the whole apple cart. They transfigure the situation by putting it into the biggest widest, frame imaginable. They bump things up to a higher level or if you like, they bump things down to a deeper more, fundamental level. And what belongs to God? Everything belongs to God, even the emperor and the Empire. And all of us here in this crowd, including the person holding that coin with the mighty Caesars’ tiny little image on it.
Come to think of it as we look around this scene, where do we find God’s image? If we have eyes to see through the Book of Genesis… where it says that God creates humankind in the Divine image… then we can find God’s image in every single person in the crowd. We belong to God, the whole human community belongs to God, and all creation belongs to God. Not so much in how we look…. In Genesis chapter One, God doesn’t have a physical body. Rather in how we live and what we do. In Genesis, humanity is made in the image of God to carry on God’s work of creative hospitality, of taking care of creation. So yeah, sure, give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and give to God what belongs to God. It’s a clever way to sidestep the trap. And more than that, it’s a way to step beyond the questions, to step beyond binary either/or. Opening up a third way. Neither merely pay taxes to the emperor. Nor merely don’t pay taxes to the emperor. But rather, yes, pay taxes, and at the same time in a bigger, wider, deeper sense, remember who you are. God’s child. Made in God’s image. Creative. Generous. And just. So yes, Jesus says, by all means participate in the political life of your particular setting, your government, your local scene and at the same time, bear in mind that that local scene is set within and permeated by a much, much bigger picture. Don’t confuse the two. Don’t reduce the wider view down to your local scene, and don’t inflate your local scene up into that wider view,
Caesar is not God. That’s the other piece of drama here. Roman coins circulating in those days typically included an inscription declaring the Divinity of Caesar. So in Jesus’ response when he draws that distinction between Caesar and God, he rather deliciously undermines, the Emperors claim to Divine status. A kind of subversive wink to the crowds and a warning to the Empire.
Caesar is not God. Our local political system should never be divinized and likewise, God should never be reduced to local politics. These two levels of analysis have to be kept clear and distinct. It’s as if Jesus says, yes, engage with your local political system but not as if it has Divine status because it doesn’t.
Accordingly on the other hand, human life with God includes every aspect of our life including political life. There’s no separate political compartment. And when we think and speak about politics theologically, we have to focus on overarching themes and underlying principles. Last we fall back into divinizing our favorite politician or political party or ideology. Those things come and go. Thinking theologically about politics means thinking in real deep terms that endure. Love for your neighbor. Justice for the downtrodden. Care for the vulnerable.
All right, someone might say, I appreciate the idea that God isn’t a Republican or a Democrat. That sounds good. But wouldn’t it be simpler if we just kept politics out of the church altogether? Part of the problem here is with the word politics. It can mean both partisan politics which needs to be checked at the door of church life. And it can also mean politics by a more basic definition—the collective decision making an action involved in building human community. The word politics comes from the Greek word polis, which means city. Wherever human beings live together. We collaborate and compete. And so, there’s a need for rules and enforcement mechanisms that counteract corruption, and facilitate fairness, and safety and flourishing. And that means laws and legislation. And that means politics in this basic collective communal sense. Agreements to ensure our drinking water is safe to drink or our roads and bridges are wisely built or our businesses are good places to work and on and on and on. Politics in this basic sense is everywhere and unavoidable.
So the real question is, how could the church not take an interest in it? Building the Beloved Community is at the heart of the church’s mission of mercy. And by definition, building a merciful community means building a just community. It’s not particularly merciful to say, give food to the hungry, and not ask why there are so many hungry people in the first place. Or not work to build a society that cares for the vulnerable. And where as many people as possible have good jobs with living wages where everybody has a fair shot and the support they need to take that shot, a merciful community is a just community. As the philosopher Cornel West has put it, justice is what love looks like in public.
So the church is thoroughly political in this basic sense but shouldn’t be political at all in the partisan sense. The church’s political reflection should always steer sharply away from partisanship and steer sharply toward broad themes and deep enduring principles. Principles about how life as a community should be organized. In short, go big, go broad, go deep or go home?
Well, that sounds great. Someone might ask: which political issues of the day should the church weigh in on with these broad themes and deep principles….. All of them or just the occasional one or two. A hopeful approach here follows from one of the best ways to read the Bible precisely because the biblical library is so diverse. The task is never to simply find a single verse here or there or even a handful of verses to proof-text our pre-existing opinion. Rather we should read widely and broadly in the Bible looking for repeated themes that weave through many of the Bible’s books. The more frequently a theme or principle is mentioned and in particular the more frequently Jesus mentions it, the more confident the church can be in proclaiming it. This sounds like common sense and it is. And at the same time it’s pretty damning considering how much of the church’s public discourse these days, at least the stuff that often ends up in the news, is actually pretty peripheral in the Bible itself.
What are the big broad Central political themes in the Bible’s Library? Freedom from slavery,… reaching out and including the marginalized… welcoming immigrants, helping the hungry and sick… caring for creation, living with boldness and humility. These are the political issues, the communal issues the church should be known for because these are the issues among others that actually appear repeatedly in the Bible.
And now we come to our gospel passage for today. This is where Jesus compares our situation to a tenacious Widow who’s been denied justice but refuses to give up. Again and again, she marches down to the courthouse to make her demands. So persistently, in fact that even the unjust judge who sits on the bench eventually gives in.
Translated, literally, the judge says because this widow causes trouble for me, I will give her justice so that she may not in the end give me a black eye by her coming. The Greek word for to give a black eye is a term Jesus borrows from boxing believe it or not. In other words, for Jesus, when it comes to justice, we have to be willing to keep at it and at least metaphorically to fight for it.
Repeatedly returning to the courthouse, so to speak, with the tenacity and boldness of a widow. And by the way, throughout scripture widows are often icons for both vulnerability and strength. From Tamar to Ruth to Naomi to Anna to the widow with the wicked right hand here in this parable. To pray for justice so fervently that our lives become prayers for justice. Praying with our feet as the Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel once put it. Speaking of what it was like to march alongside Martin Luther King Junior. To pray with our feet. To pray with our lives.
So, if the first principle is that, the church’s mission is both profoundly political and steadfastly non-partisan. And the second principle is that the church’s politics should always focus broadly on central themes in the Bible’s library. A third principle is that the church should follow the widow’s lead continually insisting on justice. Praying with our feet. Heading down yet again to the courthouse despite how long the odds may seem. For justice is what love looks like in public. And love both privately and publicly is the essence of the merciful mission of the church.
Living out mercy in this way requires faith that is courage, boldness. The audacity of a widow marching down to confront an unjust judge. No doubt with Tamar and Ruth, and Naomi and Anna, and Jesus, at her side. The audacity of a Jew, and a Christian Marching arm-in-arm for civil rights, praying with their feet. The audacity of the church at every turn refusing to be partisan and insisting on being political in that basic sense of building the Beloved Community. A kind of society we can discern by tracing the broad strokes, the common themes we find in the Bible’s Library. Such faith, such courage often takes the form of praise…. Of finding the good and praising it. And it also takes the form of justice of finding the broken and repairing it… finding the unfair and correcting it…finding the remedy, the better way of living and insisting on it… refusing to take no for an answer. Praying so fervently, walking so prayerfully that our lives become prayers and our communities become just. The church is Mercy, Faith, Praise and justice.
What does all this look like in a local church behind the Presidio County Courthouse on an ordinary Sunday morning, and throughout the week? Let’s talk about it next week.