According to the Tao Te Ching:
Is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.
Center your country in the Tao
and evil will have no power.
Not that it isn’t there,
but you’ll be able to step out of its way.
Give evil nothing to oppose
and it will disappear by itself.
Ann Landers, the advice columnist, was at an embassy reception when a rather arrogant senator walked up to her and said, “So you’re the famous Ann Landers. Say something funny.” So she said, “Well, you’re a politician. Tell me a lie.”
Whether her response was funny or just sad, the reality is that lies are pretty much what we’ve come to expect. After coming through the last two presidential elections, I can’t help but agree with Will Rogers that, “The more you observe politics, the more you have to admit that each party is worse than the other.”
Before we know it the 2016 election will be upon us and before then we have mid terms to contend with. As we wrestle with our decisions, it seems appropriate to take some time to look at our responsibility as spiritual people in the political world of today.
One of the teachers I have learned from over the years is Jesus. There is a story in the Bible in which Jesus is placed in a political conundrum. He is asked about his view on taxes. If he agrees that taxes should be paid to Caesar he will disappoint the Jewish people, but if he states that no payment should be made to Rome, he could bring about his own arrest.
So he asks for a coin – you might notice at this point that Jesus doesn’t have a coin while the Pharisee does – and as it is tossed to him he catches it in the air. He looks at it and asks the crowd, “Whose head is on this; whose title?” “Caesar’s,” they answer. “Well, if it already belongs to the empire,” Jesus says, “give it back.” (At which point we might picture Jesus slipping the coin into his pocket.) But that’s not all he says. The second half is really the surprise ending: if we will give back to the empire what is the empire’s, then we are also to give to God what is God’s.
Looking for God’s Image
Caesar’s image was on the coin. That’s how we know to whom it belonged. So our first question is where do we find God’s image? According to the book of Genesis, we find God’s image in us. Humans were created in the image of God. So if we are to give God what belongs to God, we have to give God ourselves, our bodies and our souls, all that we are – including that part of us that is involved in the political process.
Here’s the truth that Jesus shares: We cannot separate our spiritual life from our political life. We cannot separate our faith from the problems in our society. Like two sides of the same coin, the two are held intricately together as we bring our faith with us into the political arena. The next question then is how do we apply that faith in the world of politics today.
Jesus said that we have a responsibility to love our neighbor – even when that neighbor is an enemy. And that love reveals itself not in a sentimental fuzzy feeling – but as concrete actions that demand justice – even at the risk of a personal cost. We have a duty and a privilege to participate in the public arena of politics because we have a duty to be the voice for the voiceless, to exercise our power for the sake of the powerless.
God Does Not Lead a Political Party
And we must also recognize the danger of politics subverting our religion for its own purposes. Sojourners recently ran a wonderful ad in an effort to remind us that God is not a Republican – or a Democrat. The most troubling aspect of politics for me is when people use religious language in order to advance their own national or domestic policy. The most troubling aspect of politics for me is when my faith is used to as a political weapon that seeks to justify injustice.
We hear a lot of talk about security these days. The Pharisees who ask Jesus about paying taxes are also rightfully concerned about security. They have chosen to compromise with Rome in exchange for some degree of religious and political freedom. They don’t necessarily like the situation, but it seems to be working. And Jesus’ refusal to “show deference” to anyone must seem like an extremely arrogant failure on his part to appreciate the complexity of their situation.
So they try to trap him. But their strategy backfires because Jesus refuses to accept the terms of their argument. Instead of getting into a debate over taxes, he pronounces God’s authority over everything. His answer provides no clear guideline for what aspects of national duty we are to accept and what we are to challenge.
Politics of Values
But Jesus’ attitude should encourage and embolden us to refuse the terms of this nation’s debate when it presumes that military and financial security are unquestionable values. If we take Jesus seriously at all, we will question the very notion that military and financial security are our values at all! And we will do so even when, as Sojourner contributor Kari Jo Verhulst states, it means risking that we will be called a friend of terrorists and a national traitor.
The current social climate certainly yields an interesting mix of attitudes about politics from the pulpit. Some people feel very strongly that the church is no place to engage in political debate. Others expect their pastor to address the very real issues of our day and to place them in the context of faith. Martin Luther urged pastors to preach against economic injustice and public policies that work against the well-being of the poor. Well, you can’t get much more political than that.
Loving our neighbor demands that we engage in public affairs because they have such an enormous impact on people’s lives. Loving our neighbor means publicly denouncing oppression and exploitation wherever it is found.
What more important task could we have before us today? In the midst of terrorist attacks and questions of patriotism, we need to look beyond the debates, the media spin and the noise in order to ponder what is right, what is good, and what we believe our elected government should do.
Groucho Marx said, ‘Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” The truth of the quote can be so discouraging. It tempts us to hide in despair behind illusions of our own powerlessness. But we are among the most powerful people in the world. And nothing has ever been changed without the action first of a single person.
If we will take our role as a citizen of this country seriously, we will look deeper than political rhetoric. We will look at the whole global situation: the whole machinery of international power and global capitalism. And we will begin to seriously call into question the values that keep it all in place.
But as we continue to look deeper, we will also begin to see glimpses of God already subtly at work in this world. We will find hope anew that the reign of God is indeed here – being ushered in before us as we hurry to try to catch up. God reign comes even in the midst of our politics and in that reign God’s will for justice and peace is being made visible.
There is no simple application of our biblical text to the political options before us. Each option, each party represents some element of the truth and some element of human fallibility. And no option that I have heard so far takes seriously our role as oppressor in a world where we only continue to grow more wealthy and powerful on the backs of an increasing number of people living in untenable situations.
God’s Reign Equals Our Reign
The hard reality is that no matter who wins, they will not usher in the perfect realization of the promised reign of God. Any political ideology can only be a shadow of that truth. So our final question is how do we weigh the various issues at hand? If we are faithful, we must first consider what it means to love our neighbor. Self-interest is never a God-centered stance.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must seek to be what we want to become.” We must start acting now the way we want to be in the future. We are a transformational people. We know we can change – our habits, our practices, and our way of thinking. Our world too can change – for justice, for peace, for community. Grace makes it all possible.
And in that grace you and I are given the opportunity to decide how we will manifest God, how we will strive for justice and peace in this world that we create.
As people of faith, as people of conscience, and as citizens of this country, we can raise our voices to proclaim where we see God at work in this world. And we can raise the question, like Jesus, of how we, including with our political decisions and action, will give to God what belongs to God.
- What is the most critical political issue facing us today?
- How do you participate in the political process?
- Is not voting casting a vote for change or abdicating one’s responsibility?