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What Do Politicians Say Jesus Thinks?

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
St. Stephen Presbyterian Church
Fort Worth, TX
September 16, 2012

Mark 8: 27-38

Jesus and his disciples are in Syro-Phoenicia, modern-day Syria, north of their normal stomping grounds in Galilee. They are in Gentile territory, headed to a place called Caesarea Philippi, where monuments stood to honor most of the gods honored in the Greco-Roman world. So it’s telling that this is the place where Jesus asks, “Who do people say I am?” In this place where so many gods vie for human attention, who do people say Jesus is?

Well, once again we Americans are in an election season. In a lot of ways, election season is our Caesarea Philippi, with candidates presenting all sorts of variations of God as the true candidate of choice. Everybody claims God is on their side, and the question is, which version of God will we elect?

While religion is an inevitable part of the American political conversation, what is often galling is the certainty with which both sides speak for the Almighty. The thing that seems to be missing is humility. We do well to remember what President Lincoln says in his Second Inaugural: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” Lincoln’s point is that just as the North could use Scripture to justify the abolition of slavery, so too could the South could use Scripture to support its position that slavery was acceptable and that states rights, as they defined it, must be respected.

Essentially Lincoln is saying, “Let’s stop calling each other names and implying that one side or the other isn’t Christian, but get around to rebuilding our nation.”

Lincoln’s call to humility is as relevant today as it was in 1864. It was and remains a warning that absolutism and self-righteousness are the enemies of the American experiment, and humility and cooperation are its best allies.

The absolutism of Christian political extremists on both sides, left and right, is the more troubling because we claim Jesus’ authority when we may not have it. On many pressing moral issues of our day, such as abortion and gay rights, Jesus does not speak a single word, though you can build a case from other parts of Scripture. Of course, you can make the case for or against either perspective, depending on how you read the Bible.

On larger issues, however, we do have words from Jesus, but they often don’t align with the positions of either liberals or conservatives.

For instance, on matters of immigration, one side will argue that it is clear, by the compassion that Jesus showed and taught, that we should be unconditionally accepting of the illegal alien in our midst. A definite case can be made for that. But if that’s what you believe, here’s a hard passage for you, Mark 7: 24-30, in which Jesus meets a Gentile woman, a Syro-Phoenician, who asks him to expel a demon from her daughter, and He, Jesus our Lord, says to her, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Essentially he calls her a dog because she’s not a Jew.

It’s a shocking and difficult passage, made only slightly less edgy by the fact that ultimately He does what the woman asks.

But in fact, Jesus is saying, I am putting my people first.

On the other hand, we have plenty of passages where Jesus intentionally ministers to Gentiles and there’s no question that He teaches compassion.

So, from a modern perspective, one could say Jesus is on both sides of the immigration issue.

Here’s another key area where Jesus seems, from our political perspective, to be on both sides of a contentious issue. American conservatives are right that neither Jesus, nor the Bible in general, believe that government is the answer. In fact, one of the clearest messages of Scripture is that government is NOT the answer. This goes as far back as First Samuel, when the people come to the prophet Samuel and demand that God gives them a King to rule over them. Both Samuel and God are dismayed by the request. But God tells Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them…. Now then, hearken to their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them” (1 Sam. 8: 7-9).

And Samuel warns them: a king will recruit your young people into the army. A king will requisition your land. A king will tax you. A king will dragoon you into building infrastructure.

I think we all need to recognize that Samuel sounds a bit like a Tea-Partier here.

But he continues, if you still want a king, rather than trusting God to be your king, so be it. God will try to make it work for you. But this isn’t going to go well. And it doesn’t.

Jesus likewise is dismissive of human government as a relevant means of implementing God’s will. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” is essentially a call to individual responsibility, and to the responsibility of God’s people to do God’s work, a bedrock conservative principle. “It doesn’t matter what your government asks of you,” He’s saying. “The question is, are you doing what God asks of you?”

Jesus and all the writers of the Bible had an essential suspicion of government because of hard experience. Their experience was that government inevitably became the servant of the elite, and that the more they sought to build empires, the more government attempted to replace God’s sovereignty with their own. In many ways, this innate suspicion of government, and certainly this suspicion of king, queen, and empire, helped shape our US government today, with its three branches that have equal constitutional authority to check the power of one another.

And in fact, a dangerous trend in politics today is to claim that somehow, by electing a particular person, you are placing God in charge of the government. That’s exactly why the Bible was so suspicious of government in the first place!

But to say that Jesus and the Biblical authors were rightly suspicious of government does not tell the whole story, because both Jesus and the prophets believed that one absolute standard by which governments are judged is how they treat the needy. In Matthew 25 (31-46), the famous Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus warns that when The Son of Man returns in glory, He will judge us by our kindness to “the least of these,” “for as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it unto me” (Matt. 25: 40). Strikingly, though, and contrary to the way we often read it, this is not how The Son of Man is judging the individual, but how the Son of Man is judging “all the nations”!

Again and again in scripture, prophets and teachers critique Israel, Judah, and other nations for their lack of compassion for the poor, the weak, the widow and the orphan, and the stranger in their midst. This focus on taking care of “the least of these” actually starts before the founding of the nation of Israel. It comes from the biblical understanding of the purpose of a covenant community. One of the key biblical purposes of a covenant community was to pool resources to take care of the most vulnerable among us.

So scripturally, you can make the case for absolute individual responsibility, and absolute communal and national responsibility. You can make the case that government is hardly the answer, and may be the problem: and that government has as its first responsibility the care of the poor and the needy. You can be both conservative and liberal at the same time!

When Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address, he recognized that there was theological difficulty in claiming that when two sides are at odds, then God is only on one side. “The prayers of both could not be answered.” He says simply. But his point is that it’s always theologically dangerous to assume that the winner in a conflict has God on its side. That would mean, for instance, that God sided with Hitler against France, Poland, and Belgium.

Come November, one side will win, and the other side will lose, at least in the presidential election. Whichever side views itself as a winner will likely crow that it is God’s will. We Presbyterians do well to understand that God’s will is a slippery thing. That is why John Calvin, the lead theological interpreter of our faith as Presbyterians, drew a distinction between God’s Perfect Will and what he called God’s “Permissive” will. There are things that God ORDAINS to happen and things that God PERMITS to happen (Calvin, Institutes I.16-18).They are permitted, as much as anything, not because God is happy with them, but because God allows us freedom. That includes the freedom to sin.

So we should take no comfort that victory means God’s will is being done. Strictly speaking, as we Presbyterians believe, God’s will is always being done. The question is: are we doing God’s will?

That is the sticky point that Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural, is seeking to address. One side—Lincoln’s side—is going to win. But the question is, what do we do with that victory? Lincoln’s speech concludes with his choice of direction:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln’s position is that the time for stridency and superior attitudes is past. It is especially notable that he is telling the North this, because the North might justifiably feel that victory at war was also proof of the moral righteousness of their abolitionist position and use that as a hammer to beat down the South. This was not a time for moral superiority, Lincoln said. It is a time to build the bridges of reconciliation and bind the wounds of a nation. Rather than using our religion to divide us, let us use our religion to unite.

Lincoln’s position is the more interesting because no one has ever proved conclusively that Lincoln was a Christian. In fact, in his early political career, Lincoln was staunchly and vocally agnostic and even anti-Christian. He never formally joined a church and was irregular in his attendance at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington when he was president. Scholars believe it quite possible that late in his life, because of the deaths of his children and the difficulties of being president, Lincoln came to some kind of faith, a faith increasingly apparent in his speeches, for instance; but he never explicitly states that this is true.

Nonetheless, Lincoln’s point is that, regardless of the ways faith can divide us, there are principles of faith that can bind us together. Principles such as reconciliation. Healing the wounded. Caring for victims. Establishing peace. And all of them overlaid with humility that recognizes that our perception of God’s will is always limited and that in the midst of disagreement we must respect those with whom we disagree.

Whether Lincoln was a Christian or not, he believed these common principles of religion could overcome other differences and guide the post-war nation to build a better America.

These principles of faith are ones that even non-Christians, regardless of party affiliation, can agree on. But, regardless of party affiliation, they are also uniquely incumbent on all of us who claim Jesus as our Lord.

After all, Jesus’ Lordship is far more important than our politics.