Rector's Blog: The Political Church
I really hate the idea of combining politics and religion. I have spent most of my priesthood trying to avoid it. I have said before that I came from a tradition where, if you weren’t a conservative Republican, you weren’t a good Christian. And when I came into the Episcopal Church, I sometimes felt like if you weren’t a liberal Democrat, you weren’t a good Christian. And both were distasteful to me. I just wanted to follow Jesus. I just wanted salvation. I just wanted to figure out how to love my neighbor.
One 4th of July Sunday when I was still sitting in the pews, I heard a preacher say something critical of the President. That was the last time I went to that church. It didn’t matter if the preacher had made a good point or not. I did not go to church for that. I did not go to church for politics. I went for prayer. I went to know God better. I wanted to leave my politics at the door and just have my soul nourished.
And I, along with others I love, have wondered when the church became so political.
I am an Episcopalian. Our denomination is a direct descendant of the Church of England. When the American Colonies declared their independence from England, the vast majority of Anglican clergy fled – either back to England or to nearby Canada. They were loyalists to the Crown, you see. The few clergy who remained in the nascent republic felt the need to create a new church because the King or Queen of England was named in ecclesiastical hierarchy as the Supreme Governor of the Church. That wasn’t going to work in an American Christianity, and the Episcopal Church was born. The politics of the time forced theological and spiritual issues to the front. Should the church be connected so closely to the state? Do we really believe God has placed someone on a throne in England in order to govern us all? These are legitimate religious questions that are also deeply political. Our church, which I love very much, and which has taught me so much about God, was founded for political reasons.
Despite the formation of a new denomination, our Episcopal tradition has stayed close to our English forebears. We follow in their footsteps in many ways and continue to share ideas, methods, liturgies, theologians, and clergy with each other. In fact, I had always felt that it was from the Church of England that we had adopted the sense that we could get along across political and theological difference – that the church didn’t have to always be political. Of course, I am reminded that the Church of England was founded because King Henry VIII wanted a divorce. Henry actually used the desired divorce as a vehicle to wrest political power away from the Pope and the Roman Catholic church. The politics of the time forced theological and spiritual issues to the front. Should the Pope in Rome have such unchecked political power? Should worship and Bible reading only happen in Latin, or should it be translated to the local language so that people could more fully understand what they said they believed? Religious questions that are deeply political.
And so it goes, as we go further and further back. In the 11th century, what was technically considered a united Christian Church split between East and West. That schism, which birthed the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions from which all other Christian denominations have been founded, happened because of a combination of political and theological differences – deeply intertwined, inextricable even.
I don’t like that the church has become political. But then, when was the church not political? We see Jesus as one who founded a spiritual movement rather than a political one. And indeed he intentionally eschewed the partisan binaries of his time. And the language of his teachings didn’t fit neatly within the political paradigms. But to take his teachings seriously required people to reorder their whole lives, their relationship to one another, their relationship to their communities and cities, their relationship to power, and therefore their relationship to government. We saw this in the first generation of Christians. This is why they were systematically persecuted, arrested, tortured, marginalized and killed. Their beliefs were seen as threatening to the status quo. Under a government that insisted Caesar was Lord, they proclaimed Jesus is Lord. In a culture where patriotism was reserved for Rome, Paul insisted our primary citizenship is Heaven. How can we pretend that wasn’t political?
I used to take pride in the fact that the Episcopal Church was one of the few American denominations that didn’t split over the issue of slavery. I thought it was really beautiful that we found a way to call ourselves united despite differences. It was lost on me that our church accomplished this by not taking a stand against slavery. We prized the appearance of unity and the enforcement of the status quo over the proclamation of God’s liberation of all people in Jesus Christ.
This does not mean we weren’t political, by the way. It means we chose the politics of status quo even when it was evil.
Because there is no such thing as an apolitical church. It does not exist. It has never existed. The decision not to teach and preach and think and talk together about what is actually happening in our community, in our world is itself a political decision.
And it is a theological decision. It is a theological decision to say that the way we stay unified is by not talking about politics. We are effectually saying, “I can love you unconditionally so long as we don’t acknowledge and seek to understand our differences.” As a church we are meant to embody the love of God. Do we believe that God only loves us so long as we hide some of our most deeply held convictions and beliefs? We are making a theological decision when we don’t talk about politics in our worshiping community. We are saying these things that our happening in our lives don’t affect God, or that God has no say over them, that God has no opinion.
Do you believe God had no opinion about the American practice of chattel slavery? Do you believe God is silent on the issue of White Supremacy and its lasting impact and influence on our culture? Do you believe that God does not care about the full humanity of women? Of their agency? Do you believe that God doesn’t care about the systematic targeting of transgender people in our state governments right now? That God is sitting up there saying, “They’ll work it out. In the meantime, I wish they prayed more.”
I am uncomfortable with my own faith journey. I am still working through all this. I don’t want to be political. And I don’t want to be guided by the premise that God has to have all the same political beliefs that I have. I want to follow Jesus. I want salvation. I want to love my neighbor. It’s just that I keep realizing more and more that following Jesus, loving my neighbor, being saved, all of it has political implications. I think back on when I became an Episcopalian, and how I said I wanted to be spiritual but not political at church. But then I remember that I chose to attend an Episcopal Church because they had a reputation of being gay friendly, and I would not attend a church that was not. I did not consider that political. I was wrong.
A few years ago, as I was just beginning to consciously work through all this, a family member asked me if I believed, as Pope Francis had recently written, that income inequality was a sin. And I responded that, no, I did not agree with Francis – that income inequality did not seem to me to be inherently good or bad. And then I found myself saying, “At the same time, every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Which means we want the world to look more heavenly every day. And while income inequality is one thing, on the extreme end we have billionaires building spaceships for personal use alongside people living in the streets. And I do not believe that is what Heaven looks like. Do you?”
How do we work with God to help Earth look more like Heaven? That is not an idealistic question. That is not a utopian question. It is a political question that is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is our vocation as Christians to seek an answer.
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