Friday, October 12, 2012

How to be Christian in a political world

Chapel Address at Eastern Mennonite School
Matthew 22:15-22

On Friday I sat on stage in front of an auditorium filled with middle and high school students, and their teachers, at Eastern Mennonite School. I talked about politics and faith. Here's what I said. Feel free to offer your comments.


I’m going to sit down to give my talk this morning.
It’s purely symbolic.
I sit, because I’m going to preach on politics.
We’ve seen some political conventions and debates recently.
Politicians speak behind very impressive pulpits,
on very impressive stages.
They sound just like preachers, in style and content.
They preach about hope, and trust, and unity.
Change a few words here and there,
you could be listening to a sermon.
So, as I preach about politics,
I don’t want to remind you of any politician you’ve seen lately.

I also sit, as a gesture of humility,
to show that I am not here to proclaim final truth.
I come here, like you, seeking truth.
Imagine us in a conversation, maybe in a coffee shop.
You can’t really talk back to me right now.
But continue the conversation later,
with each other, with teachers, family, church.

Now about politics . . . 
Politics turns neighbors and friends into red-hot enemies.
It divides towns, and families, and churches.
It makes otherwise decent people say terrible things
about people who have different opinions.
It makes people un-friend each other on Facebook.
It makes outgoing people choose silence, and avoidance.

So my sit-down conversation with you,
is my little protest against keeping quiet to keep the peace.
It ought not be that way in the church, the body of Christ.
I will talk openly about politics this morning,
not to give you the right answers, 
but to help you ask the right questions.

Let’s first ask ourselves about who we believe we are.
I know not everyone here calls themselves Christian.
But if you are part of a community of followers of Jesus,
I’m talking to you, to us, to the church.
We say we are the body of Christ.
We embody the presence of Jesus in the world.
We represent the character and values of Jesus, as a body.
So, what were the character and values of Jesus?

Jesus was political.
Jesus was sometimes an activist in his Jewish community.
His people were under occupation, by a brutal empire.

And he engaged the political powers—both religious and Empire.
He confronted both, but not on their terms.
Jesus confronted the religious powers,
not by taking over their power positions in the temple,
but by touching lepers,
eating with tax collectors,
hanging with sinful people,
and otherwise living a different kind of righteousness.

And Jesus confronted the powers of the Empire,
not by taking up arms and staging a takeover,
but by simply refusing to bow to their absolute power.

The Emperor, Caesar, demanded to be worshiped as Lord and Savior.
Literally.  He used those words.
In Matthew chapter 22,
Jesus was asked about paying taxes to Caesar.
So he called for a coin,
pointed to Caesar’s head, and said,
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,
and give to God what is God’s.”
Jesus was not endorsing Caesar!
He was disputing Caesar!

Caesar saw no difference between himself and God.
He claimed authority
over every thing and every person in the Empire.
Jesus said No!
“These coins have Caesar’s picture on them.
We’ll give him that much. Now . . . give God the rest.”

Jesus confronted the powers,
and he ended up dying for it.
He was crucified by the political powers of the Empire,
who conspired with political powers of the Temple.
Both political powers could not stand Jesus
and his politics of love.
Jesus never raised a sword,
never tried to overtake anyone’s position.
He just lived a life of radical love.
He laid down his life as a sacrifice,
rather than betray the character of God’s kingdom.

But God had the last word.
Jesus’ resurrection shamed and embarrassed the powers.
It showed how powerless they were.

So that’s what Matthew tells us about Jesus and power.
So I’m left to wonder.
What does this mean for the body of Christ today,
as we represent Jesus in the public square?
How do we represent
this power of self-sacrifice for the good of the whole,
this power of responding to violence with love,
this power of lifting up the weak, 
and blessing the poor, and welcoming the alien?
That is who we are as Jesus followers.
That is how we live.

Until we get involved in politics.

There is a huge difference between 
the character of the kingdom of God revealed in Jesus, and
the character of partisan politics.

Politicians are not just permitted, they are expected to attack.
They attack not just the ideas,
but the character, integrity and dignity of their opponent.

Is this the kind of stuff
we who represent Christ in the world,
should feel comfortable participating in,
or standing on the sidelines cheering?
Can we be involved in partisan politics,
and still maintain our integrity
as citizens of God’s kingdom?
And if so, are there limits? Where do we draw the line?

That’s the question I put before us all this morning.

The presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, 
is, in fact, rather exciting. It has drama.
The candidates have different personalities, 
different kinds of charisma,
different personal histories, and
different ideas about what is right for our country.
And it’s a tight race.
It’s hard not to get emotionally invested in our side.

But I still wonder,
how is it, that Christians get so filled with religious fervor—
and I mean religious fervor—
in support of their candidate?

If our first loyalty is to a kingdom where we
love our enemies,
do good to those who hate us,
lift up those who stumble,
and strengthen the weak . . . 
Why do we get beside ourselves with joy
when our candidate really sticks it to the other one.
Why do we cheer when the opposition stumbles,
when our adversary looks weak,
when our candidate piles on insults and verbal abuse.

But even putting that aside.
Ignoring all the ugliness of partisan politics,
there is a deeper question that troubles me.

How have we Christians come to put so much hope,
so much expectation,
so much faith . . . yes, faith . . . 
in which party is running the U.S. government?

Sure, it’s all very interesting.
It deserves our paying attention to it.
It probably even deserves our participation with a vote.
But why do we Christians, of all people,
put so much stock in it?
Why are we so invested?

I wonder . . . if the reason we put so much hope 
in the outcome of a political campaign,
is that we have made a complete split
between our public and private faith.
If Jesus is Lord over all of life—public and private—
then we cannot separate our participation in politics,
from our loyalty to the kingdom of God.
We can’t cut our lives into two parts, can we?
The part where we act like we represent the body of Christ,
and the part where we don’t?

Personally, I want to live a whole life.
In the world. And of the people of God.

I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to trust the people of God
more than I trust a political party to bring about God’s will.

And no, I don’t think the church 
is a perfect representation of Christ.
We are a human system, filled with sin.
We are made up of sinners, and led by sinners,
myself included.
We have to be humble about our role in the world.
We have to be honest about our failures and repent.

And no, I don’t think the church has a monopoly on wisdom.
We are a bunch of ordinary people, 
with ordinary ideas and ordinary skills.
The church looks an awful lot like the rest of the world.

But here’s what I do think.
I think God, in God’s mysterious wisdom, 
chose us anyway . . . to be God’s agents 
to reveal God’s saving grace to the world.
And I believe God gave us the Holy Spirit for such a time as this . . .
to empower us,
to give wisdom, and courage,
to demonstrate God’s kingdom on earth.

We live in these United States,
and we must be good and responsible and grateful citizens.
But the kingdom of God is our first home.
It’s where we belong.
It’s our primary identity. Our primary citizenship.

The power of God’s kingdom
is the power of self-sacrificing love.
So how we can be good Kingdom citizens,
and take sides in a red-hot political battle—
fighting each other with insults, half-truths, and manipulation,
or at least cheering on those who do?

We do believe, don’t we,
that character assassination is not Christlike behavior?
We do believe, don’t we,
that lying, manipulating, and defaming others to get the upper hand
is not the way of the kingdom of God?
So why do Christians get so wound up
in a system that does exactly those things?

I have an idea I want to propose to us all,
as we get closer to Election Day, and beyond.
How you implement this idea is up to you.
We won’t all choose exactly the same path.

But do you think you can join me in this one commitment . . . 

That my loyalty to the kingdom of God,
will always come first,
before my loyalty to any political party’s agenda,
or any political party’s candidate.

So what does this really mean . . . 
for you folks sitting here talking across the table from me
at Eastern Mennonite School?

For starters, we need to not only respect and tolerate each other.
We need to do something even harder—
honor and love each other,
as fellow disciples of Jesus.
We must absolutely refuse to let political differences
determine who we are friends with,
or let it break fellowship in the church.

In fact, we should be going out of our way
to be with those who hold different political viewpoints.
We should seek each other out,
so we can explore our differences in more depth,
and learn from each other.

And if you are someone who plans to vote—
like faculty and staff, or some older seniors—
don’t go into the voting booth believing
this is your one best chance to change the world.
It’s fine to cast your vote,
but vote with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Save your best energy, best vision, and best hope,
for joining with the people of God,
and following Jesus into the world,
as agents of God’s saving and healing work.

I don’t condemn any of you who do go to political rallies,
and sport bumper stickers and plant yard signs 
and are otherwise fired up for your party of choice.
I simply want us all to ask ourselves honestly,
what would it mean to be even more fired up
about our citizenship in the kingdom of God?
what would it mean to do as Jesus taught,
to seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness,
as we sang, at the beginning of chapel?

I plan to keep doing my best to be a responsible citizen of this country.
I love my country.
I will do my part to contribute to my country’s well-being.
But I also love the other countries in this world.
And I pledge my ultimate allegiance to a higher authority.

This is my pledge of allegiance . . . 

I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ,
and to God’s kingdom for which he died—
one Spirit-led people the world over,
indivisible, with love and justice for all.

—Phil Kniss, October 12, 2012

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below and write your comment in the box. When finished, click on "Other" as your identity, and type in your real name. Then click "Publish your comment."]


Hannah! said...

Wow! Thank you so much for this, Phil. This is an incredibly important message for people to hear at this time, and forever more.

Hannah! said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is powerful.

Linda W. said...

Thanks for this challenging perspective, Phil!


Ouch! I SO agree with your post and find myself of enjoying when the candidate I do NOT support messes up! I'm praying for my heart to be open to the Spirit's working on my old calloused heart. Blessings.