So we began our six week series, “God’s Politics,” last week – and we started with the idea that during this season of elections, God has a candidate in the running already as well. That person’s name doesn’t rhyme with “The Rock Mohammed” or “Fit Mommie;” it’s you, and it’s me, and – more to the point – it is all of us together, as the body of Christ, running the race in Jesus’ place.
This week we move from candidate selection to the primaries, or (as we’ve really come to know this time in American politics) the season of mud-slinging. Mud-slinging is just about the most frustrating and tiresome aspect of campaigning, the course of which is predictable enough to set your watches by. First there is a call from both sides to focus on the issues and not the personalities. Then there is a public dissection of each candidate’s record, personal and public, designed to call attention to what the other considers to be their failures. Finally there is an attack campaign that makes establishing the common good a secondary goal to destroying the opponent.
As tedious and despicable as this process is for the general public, the real disappointment lies in the shrewd calculus employed by those who manage the candidates’ campaigns. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that campaigns go negative, really hit their worst notes, in the days just before the election. This isn’t just momentum, it’s not passion gone amuck. It’s a calculated attempt to depress voter turnout. Campaign strategists know that the general public is turned off by negative campaigns, that they actually depress voter turnout. So, often, once a campaign thinks it has gained the upper hand among those most likely to vote, there is often a decision to “go negative” in an effort to keep undecided voters home as their interest in the campaign turns to indifference.
This is democracy without ideals, and politics without soul.
I don’t know if we, the general public, have learned these tricks from our politicians – or if they have learned them from us – but either way, mud-slinging is hardly confined to local or national elections. It is deeply engrained in our culture of conflict. We barely know anymore how to disagree with one another without disparaging each other. It’s not enough to have a vision for the church, the city, the nation; we seem to feel compelled to torch the opposition, to accuse them of the worst sorts of sin and defects of character. If our way is righteous, then all other ways must be debased. If we are just, then all others must be corrupt. If I am right, you must be wrong.
The small group from St. Luke’s and Luther Memorial that’s begun reading Jim Wallis’ book, God’s Politics, met together for the first time at a quiet pub in Ravenswood this past Wednesday night. It was a good turnout, there were about ten of us, and although we’re just starting to get to know each other, it’s clear that we don’t all have the same political or religious background. We are, however, interested in exploring together what it means to be people of faith in a world struggling to act faithfully.
In the chapters we’re reading for this upcoming Wednesday, Jim Wallis talks about moving beyond “the politics of complaint.” He gives the example of the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as he and other faith leaders from a wide range of political and denominational backgrounds pleaded with governmental leaders from the United States and Great Britain to find a different way forward – one that kept the world safe from the possibility of weapons of mass destruction without setting the precedent of pre-emptive war. In a time during which it would have been easy to write off as hopeless those who were set on a course of action they could not support, Wallis and others stayed in reasoned, respectful dialogue with the very people with whom they most deeply disagreed. Reflecting back on those difficult days Wallis writes,
Like many others, I came of age during the 1960s, when the struggle for justice was embodied in the archetype of protest. We learned our lessons about politics in the streets, and the habit of protest is still deep within us. But protest can become static and formulaic. The aim of effective and transformational protest should be to illumine a society to its need for change. In other words, protest must be instructive to succeed, more than destructive. It should, at its best, point the way to an alternative, rather than just register the anger of its demonstrators. Protest must not become just a ritual of resistance, offering a laundry list of grievances…
The power of protest is not in its anger but its invitation. The test of protest is whether it points and opens the way to change or merely denounces what is. When protest is both instructive and constructive in a society, it becomes something that has to be dealt with and not just merely contained.
In other words, the best protest is not merely countercultural, it is transformational. It gives a society a better vision for itself and for the future. That is the way of the prophets. They began in judgment but ended in hope for change. The biblical prophets were never just complaining; they were imagining a newer world.
For a book written in 2005, and talking about events from 2003, Wallis’ words sound remarkably fresh and relevant to the politics of the day, don’t they? If you’re watching our city and nation, and even the world, mobilizing massive protests calling for a change in the way we construct our life together, and you’re wondering if and how our faith informs these present day struggles, I really encourage you to consider joining our mid-week conversation. You can speak with me after worship for more details.
But to return to the scriptures appointed for this morning, the point they make is stunningly simple. Speaking to an audience no less divided by religion and politics than we are today, a society of haves and have-nots in the grips of a military occupation, Jesus avoids to the trap laid for him by his interrogators with the ethical wisdom at the heart of all the world’s religions, saying “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hand all the law and the prophets.”
If you want to know how God’s politics sound on the lips of God’s candidates, it’s as simple as this, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That leaves no room for slander, or vengeance, or self-righteousness, either in public politics or in private life. It means we do not treat each other as pawns in a game, or as votes on a scorecard, but instead as human beings made in the image and likeness of God, and deserving of all the care and respect that comes therewith.
In his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer puts it like this,
Rightly understood, politics is no game at all. It is the ancient and honorable human endeavor of creating a community in which the weak as well as the strong can flourish, love and power can collaborate, and justice and mercy can have their day.
This is the politics of love, gospel politics, God’s politics, the kind of living for which Christians are called to labor together. In this season of campaigning, we are reminded that our whole lives are folded into God’s larger campaign in which we have already been elected, and by which we now run this race.
In the name of Jesus.