November 6, 2016
First Presbyterian Church – Coeur d’Alene
Message Series: Nation Under God
Part 4: Christians and the Realm on
Politics – A Time to Heal
Scripture Text: Proverbs 29:18, Revelation 21:10
Guest Speaker: George Sayler
Prayer: Lord God, as we come before You to hear Your word, quiet our hearts so that we will not be distracted by the clamor of the world around us, but may we instead hear Your strong quiet voice saying…peace I give unto you, my peace…and from within that peace may we give praise to You for Your grace and love. May my words and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing to You. Amen.
Greetings: So here we are –in church, on the eve of a hotly contested presidential election, talking about politics! What’s with that? We’re not supposed to talk about religion and politics in the same breath, especially in public, especially in church!
Well, as you know, we’ve been dealing with the relationship between our Christian faith and the political realm, and how the two interact.
Today, I will be using two scriptures to bookend my sermon, and they are Proverbs 29:18, which says in part, “Where there is no vision, the people perish”….. And Revelation 21:10 where we hear of the holy city, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. Taken together, they frame a vision for a new direction for politics in our land.
Let me say first, I am not here to merely give a civics lesson, or proclaim a particular political ideology or party, but to talk about what I believe our Christian faith requires of us as citizens. I am talking about what the Bible tell us about our role in that whole process–as I understand it, knowing that others may take a different stance. And I speak knowing that what I say is subject to the correction of others as well as God. So, if we do disagree, let us do it in an agreeable manner, and please don’t be offended by the following:
If you are a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, a Socialist, an Independent, or any other stripe of political affiliation, I am talking to you. Please don’t claim that God is on your side! God is not a partisan in our political realm; we find nothing in the Bible to indicate God favors one party or another.
It actually hurts our faith when we make that claim: it’s divisive, turns people away, and it misrepresents God. God’s politics is far different from ours, and He challenges all of our politics. Lincoln had it right when he said we should not worry if God is on our side or claim that He is, but whether we are on God’s side. We must not confuse the message of Jesus with the message of politicians just because they seem to speak the same religious language we do.
Our guiding principle should be that Christ is the Lord of our politics, not a political party or any political leader.
Craig has laid the foundation for my remarks in his last three sermons, saying in essence, government is legitimate, we should bring Christ to it, we owe our first loyalty to God, and we should not despair, because Christ is Lord and is at work reconciling the world to Himself. That’s the super condensed Reader’s Digest version!
What is politics?
With that, if I were to ask you to complete this sentence, “Politics is…,” what would you say?
I imagine for most of us it would be something negative, and there are good reasons for that. Our political system is a mess, the tone is angry, attack ads are the rule, serious discussion of issues is missing, and the current campaigns are among the worst ever. . But that is not the way it has to be.
Politics has to do with people living together. You may have heard that, “all politics is local.” And it is. You could even say there is politics within our families. But the politics we are talking about has to do with the practice of governing, with how issues are resolved and policies set. It’s the struggle to see who gets to hold power and how that power is to be used, or what LBJ called, the Art of Persuasion.
But in spite of what you may feel, politics is not inherently corrupt, but power does corrupt human beings. It can compromise our principles and dull our conscience – leading to the misuse of power. And it does become corrupt when corrupt people are in office and not held accountable, or when good people succumb to the lure of being in office, or when other people chose to stay disengaged and forfeit their responsibility to be involved… Yes, the potential for corruption is very real.
But it is wrong to say that power per se is bad. After all, the Bible talks of the power of God, the power of the gospel, the power of truth, and the power of biblical leaders, all of which we acknowledge as good. And political power can also be good as when someone like Nelson Mandela used it to help end apartheid in South Africa, and there are many other examples of the proper use of political power.
What we need, I think, is a more positive model of politics, one that will encourage people to get involved and inspire us to work together, one that can result in significant healing of the political divide that threatens our nation.
A Christian politics
So I want to offer you a different vision of politics, one that might be called a Christian view of politics that I think offers a vision of healing for our political system and our nation. It won’t be a “this is how to do it recipe” because that is way beyond the scope of this. Call it a sort of blueprint or a vision: a vision, for how we might imagine the political system and our behavior within it.
William Sloan Coffin, a former chaplain at Yale, once said: “Too many Christians use the Bible as a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination.”
I don’t want to be one of those persons, but I did choose two texts that encompass what I want to say.
First is Proverbs 29:18. “Where there is no vision the people perish, but he that keeps the law, happy is he.” Or, as another translation reads; “Where there is no vision from God, the people run wild, but those who adhere to God’s instructions know genuine happiness.”
Let’s focus on the word vision. It implies thinking about how things could be and how to make that happen.
Sometimes vision is translated as prophecy, which in its widest sense involves a prophetic voice being raised against unjust rulers or societal injustice, and it calls for a return to God’s ways. And prophets are witnesses to the truth and the power of God’s actions in history. They call us to account and correct our behavior. Without that, Proverbs tells us, there is chaos, disorder, injustice and unruly behavior or rebellion. Right now our politics lacks vision, and we are beginning to see the results.
Adhering to God’s instructions implies carrying out the things that God asks us to do, and the second part of that verse says when we have a vision of God’s kingdom on Earth, and pay heed to God’s will, and then act to help bring it about, our land will be at peace and life will be orderly.
As Christians, we have the same civic duties as any other non-Christian citizen, e.g., to serve on juries, pay taxes or vote. We are also instructed in 1st Timothy to pray for and respect our governing authorities. But we are also commanded to do more than that. We are to be partners with God in creating a more just and peaceful world.
Senator Joe Lieberman, whose Jewish background brought him into the life of public service, wrote that his parents taught him that his life was a gift from God and that he had a covenantal obligation to serve God. He based this on the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, which translates to “complete the world,” or “to repair the world,” or more boldly as he said, “to complete the creation which God had begun.”
This idea accepts that we are a fallen people in a broken world and concludes that our responsibility to God is to help improve it and repair it, both within ourselves and the world around us.
The concept of Tikkun Olam is somewhat akin to Jesus commanding Matthew (23:29) to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, with the understanding that our neighbor is more than the people living next door. To actually love our neighbor, we must first understand who that is. We often assume that according to Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is someone, anyone, in need.
It could also be construed that the one doing the good deed is also the neighbor and Jesus was pointing out our obligation to be that person. So the point was not just to be a good neighbor to a particular person, but to be neighborly or loving to all people, for we are neighbors one to another. And when God commands us to love our neighbor, he means to love them holistically, which means caring for their material, spiritual and emotional well-being. To do that, we should be willing to protect the rights, freedoms, and justice due our neighbors in our broader
community, which means we care about which laws and policies are passed and that puts us in the realm of politics. In essence, we are called to be involved in making the world a better place, even through the political realm, if necessary.
Another perspective comes from the book God on Earth. The author, Douglas Bannister, wrote a chapter called “Politics as Shalom-Making,” and it drew upon his conversation with a young man running for public office.
The young man, Chris, said the campaign had been a means of spiritual development for him, that “we grow spiritually when we bring faith to bear on issues that are crucial to the well-being of society.” For him, politics meant “building community with strangers,” and the goal of Christian politics is to build a community that works for everybody.”
The author continued, saying that when the Hebrew prophets dreamed of healthy communities they described their vision with the word shalom, which means much more than peace. It also means harmony, wholeness, completion, absence of discord, things as they are meant to be…things as they are meant to be. In the Bible, shalom is the work of God reconciling the world to Himself, first through the law and the prophets and then through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Bannister concludes that the purpose of politics then, is to bring shalom in the broadest – fullest sense, and that is why we as Christians must be involved in politics, because it’s a tool for creating shalom.
So there is a vision of a kind of politics in which Christians who engage can bring Christ to the political realm, and be reconcilers through His power. We can then begin to transform our political system and bring healing to a nation that is bitterly divided.
I cannot, in the little time I have, tell you how that process would work, but remember that Jesus walked with and talked to the people. He spent time with them. He ate with them and engaged with them, he heard their concerns and met their needs. What politics needs from us and our political leaders is to do the same. We need to bring the mind and heart of Christ to bear on each situation and trust that God will work through that and then trust that the result will resemble what is described in Revelation 21 and 22.
Revelation 21:10 says: “And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.”
And in verse 5, God said: “See, I am making all things new.” The vision of chapters 21 and 22 is a vision of the New Jerusalem. They describe the new heaven and the new earth and show clearly what healing is and what that means for us, and what it might mean to talk, in human terms, about a politics of healing.
At heart, I think that is what Christian politics is: a politics of healing. I know we don’t normally think of healing and politics joined together. In fact, healing is often something we come to church to obtain, and politics is often something we come to church to avoid. But the new heaven and new earth portrayed in Revelation is a model of what political healing might mean. It would mean that shalom was happening.
The healing of our political system will not be at the hand of a political savior, no matter who that might be, though the right person could make a difference. But we all, as Christians, have a part to play in that healing. We also need to remember that we are not the Creator, that it is God who brings in the new heaven and new earth. But we share in God’s work of creation and have the responsibility of being good stewards of our democracy. The way to begin the process is to accept the healing that Christ brings and seek to bring it to the world.
In 2 Corinthians Chapter 5 we read, in part, that if we are in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new…and that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. He is at work creating shalom, creating wholeness, or things as they were meant to be. What if we really lived as if the Creator really loved us, and as if each person, all our neighbors, are loved as we are. Our lives might look different… and so would our politics.
If we “love first” – when we love first: God, our neighbors, and ourselves, our lives change, and if we bring those changed lives into the political realm our politics will change.
Now, I was asked to say a few words about my background and my experiences in office, and how and why I became involved in politics…. I want to say that in my eight years in office I met and worked with a wide variety of people, and there are many good people, Christian and non-Christian are in office.
But it’s a tough job being in office and those people need your support. They need to hear from you, both your requests and concerns, and your prayers. But they also need your appreciation for what they have undertaken. I know that while in office many of you expressed that to me, and it meant a great deal. Being in politics can be hard, it can wrench your moral compass almost to the point of breaking. So how and why did I get involved?
I did attend seminary in the early ‘70’s and planned to teach religion in college or junior college, which I did at NIC in the evenings, but I ended up teaching high school government and history, which was a good fit for me. While teaching, I always tried to impress on my students that our democracy required participation by its citizens if it was to be successful. I tried my best to inculcate that value in them: that they needed to be involved.
And then, one year, I went to a political meeting to listen to a candidate for Congress who was running against someone I did not support. While there, I happened to mention that I thought it would be interesting to fill in for a few days at the legislature to replace someone who had to miss a few days. Well, it was not long before people began asking me to run – not the outcome I had been expecting. So, after prayer and deliberation, talking it over with Katie and friends, I decided to do so. After all, it would have been quite hypocritical if I said no after teaching involvement for so many years.
I also felt I had something to offer, that I knew our community and that I could be a good representative of the people. And, I felt an urging or a voice within saying it was the right thing to do. Call it a calling if you wish, but my faith certainly played a part in my decision.
I won my first election by 69 votes out of a vote total of 10,000 votes. So, yes, your vote does count! The person running for the other seat on the same party ticket as myself won
by 18 votes. Don’t ever let anyone tell you your vote doesn’t count!
Being in office as a Christian in many ways is no different than it is for a non-Christian. You have the same duties and responsibilities, face the same decisions, you’re accountable to your constituents, and so on.
Sometimes, though, when moral issues are at stake, you have to put aside all other considerations and ask yourself, is this the right thing to do? Sometimes you also have to give up some of what you want to achieve in order to gain part of it – in other words: compromise. Contrary to what a representative from North Idaho said in the paper yesterday, compromise is not wrong, it makes politics work and recognizes the worth of others’ opinions and legitimate interests.
My first morally challenging vote involved capital punishment. It was not whether to abolish it but had to do with how the process of “due process” was carried out before the punishment would be given, and the law was meant to expedite the process. I don’t remember all the details of the legislation, but I remember being very conflicted about the issue, and later I e-mailed some of those who had been involved in my campaign and expressed to them the moral ambiguity I had experienced. I finished by making reference to that great hymn, “Amazing Grace,” saying in effect, that only by the grace of God could I continue to make such decisions, knowing that if I erred, God’s grace would still be there.
A second very difficult vote was on a resolution to support President Bush in going to war in Iraq. I had been to Vietnam and had some idea what war in Iraq would mean, and I did not feel the president had made the case for war, nor had he asked congress for a declaration of war. I also feel war should be a last resort in foreign policy.
When it came my turn to vote, I had to stand and say no and explain why. There were three representatives who voted against it, and I was one of them. It was a lonely moment in some respects, but I felt good about that vote, and ironically, I think it added to my stature in the House rather than diminishing it.
A third and last example is the issue of child care. I worked for six years to improve the child care statues in Idaho – those that govern child-care facilities. There were serious weaknesses in existing law that put children at risk. In the end, the legislation that passed did not do all that I wanted, but it made significant improvements, e.g., requiring that those who worked in child care facilities had to have criminal background checks to insure there were no sex offenders hired.
What I came to understand was that there were other valid perspectives on how to best insure safety of children, especially in small settings. There were others, from other Christian traditions, who had very different views about how to achieve the same end – the safety and well-being of children. It would have been wrong to demonize them, or refuse to compromise, because from their perspective their view was just as valid as mine was to me.
Without spending more time on this, I can only say it was a true honor to serve, and I did feel God’s presence at times. And I certainly relied on him for strength to do my job.
Based on my experience of knocking on thousands of doors and talking to people, and my time in office, I do have hope for our political system, but I do believe the two-party system is failing us. There are many reasons, but part of the fault is “We the people”. We have become disenchanted, disengaged, and unwilling to participate or do the hard work of really knowing the issues or the candidates, and we rely too much on party affiliation when voting.
One day I was campaigning and knocked on a door. The man asked, after I told him who I was, he asked what party I was, and I said Democrat. He said, well, I’ll save you the trouble of talking to me, I always vote Republican. I thanked him for his time and went to the next house, and the scene repeated, except that time, when I said Democrat, the man said I always vote Democrat, you’ve got my vote, save your breath. As I walked away I wondered how those two neighbors got along, but I was also saddened by the blind loyalty to party and the fact that whatever I had to say or offer didn’t matter.
For those of you who have already voted, thank you. For those of you who, like me, like to go to the polls on election day and take part in that ritual, please do. The word vote and votive both come from the Latin root voveo, and when we light a votive candle, it is an act of offering to God. Maybe we should consider the act of voting in the same way, because in doing so we are exercising our Christian duty.
So, now it’s the morning of Nov. 9th –what now? Well, as Isaiah said, “There will be joy in the morning” because God’s “good news” is still at work in the world. The world will not end regardless of who wins, because politics does not rule the world, God does. Christ is Lord, and he is at work reconciling the world to himself. So, love your neighbor as yourself, even if he or she is from a different political party!
At the beginning of each daily session, the legislature begins with prayer, and we were given the opportunity to lead those prayers on occasion. My closing prayer includes the first part of one of the prayers I did in the house, and I think it still has relevance. Let’s pray.
We acknowledge our dependence on you. We need you guidance for though we seek to be wise, too often we engage in folly. We seek to do good, but too often our efforts fail. We seek to meet the needs of those we serve, yet needs go unfulfilled. Grant that as we strive to serve the common good, we also strive to be in your will. When our efforts seem in vain, when our course of action uncertain, remind us that if we seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, you will judge our actions as worthy.
Lord, we come with thankfulness in our hearts for the gift of freedom, and for those who use their time, talents and resources to protect it. So bless those who serve to protect us and those who we chose to lead us. Give them all strength, courage, wisdom and a servant’s heart. Keep us from the anger and divisiveness the torments our land, and help us to love our neighbor, whoever they may be, both near and far. As you bless us, also forgive us, as we turn our hearts to you. Amen.