The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Political theology


Pentecost 26, Proper 28C


Let us pray.  Almighty God, bless us all with the ability to hear and to speak your wisdom.  Give us the courage that comes from of an assurance of your presence.  Empower us to act in your name, as you would have us to do.  Amen.

I’ve been struggling this week with what to say today.  How does a preacher – one called to be the spiritual leader of a congregation of God’s people – speak to the events of this week?  With every expectation that there are people in this parish celebrating the outcome of the presidential election, as well as people in this parish who are mourning and fearful as a result of it, where can I find the word of God?  How do I avoid that most stinging insult that people often lob at preachers: that of being “too political”?

The fact is, I can’t.  What we do in church is public theology.  It’s not just about personally held beliefs, but publicly proclaimed beliefs.  And I’m not the only one doing the proclaiming.  Each of you is publicly proclaiming your Christian faith by being here.  You’re public proclaiming your faith by kneeling to pray and standing to come to the altar.  Your participation, in your words and in your actions, is public.  Our theology is being practiced publicly, and public theology is political.  It is saying something about who we are and what we believe.  It is publicly proclaiming what we believe to be good and just and right, and those are political proclamations with political implications.  In fact, if you were to go to a thesaurus and look up synonyms for the word “political”, one of the words you would find would be “public”.

So, as people who practice public theology, we have to accept that political belief is a part of it.  We are political animals.  It is in our nature as social creatures.  For me to ignore the actions of a week so obviously centered around political activity, or for me to obfuscate or to dance around it, would be dishonest, and it would be a dereliction of my duty as your priest.

So let’s talk about politics.  Political realities have public implications for Christians.

This week, our country elected a leader who made isolating, blaming, and punishing some members of our society a hallmark of his campaign.  That campaign, and the media that fed it, normalized childish name-calling, sexual assault, and hate speech.  As a result of this, incidences of hate crimes, violence, and threats that had been rising before the election, have now spiked.  On Wednesday morning I began hearing stories of children bullying with impunity, Muslim women having their hijabs ripped from their heads, gay and lesbian people being told that their marriages would soon be revoked and that they should be murdered, women being threatened and assaulted, black people being threatened, buildings being vandalized with slogans like “Make American White Again”, swastikas, and disgusting racial slurs painted across the sides.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has been registering hate crimes like these for decades.  This week – between Wednesday and Friday - more than 200 hate crimes and incidents of bias-based intimidation have been reported to them.  This is one of the largest spikes that they’ve seen since they began tracking these things.

And these stories aren’t just coming from the Deep South.  I know we like to think we’re somehow beyond these kinds of things in the northeast, but we’re not.  These are stories from all across the country, including very near here.  Some of these stories are coming from within very progressive strongholds like New York and California.  This isn’t something far off, but right here – in our own communities.

Many people have seen this election not just as a crush to the “establishment” or as an expressed desire for us to engage in reasonable political change, but as validation for their meanness.  This is not to say that everyone who voted for the President-elect was intending to vote for discrimination or for increased hate crimes.  I'm sure that's not the case.  But it is true that this is what we've got.  And as a result, many people - myself included - are now afraid for their lives, their safety, and their liberty.  This is not an occasion of merely bemoaning how “divided” we are, or acknowledging that we have disagreements that we should work through.  This is not about some benign difference of opinion.  This isn’t about sore losers.  Some people are actually being targeted, in real ways, for persecution.

And it’s not that the President-elect or this election caused these ideas, but he and it did embolden them.  The rhetoric from the far right in this election legitimized the hatred and the exclusion and the desire to harm that has already existed in the shadows.  We’ve now just shined a light in those shadows and given them the legitimacy of a larger stage on which to act.

In times like this, as a devoted Christian and a priest, one of my first instincts is to turn to Holy Scripture for some assurance, and the Christian message always is that we are called to take sides.  If you follow Christ, then you are on the side of the oppressed.  In order to follow Christ, you have to stand up for the persecuted.  The church hasn’t always been very good at that.  We’ve often, instead, preferred to protect our own power and privilege.  But, despite that history, we still are called to act on the side of Christ – on the side of those most easily cast aside - in the present.

Hear, again, the words of the gospel from last Sunday – the ones that guided us as we went into the election: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man… surely your reward is great in heaven…”

And in case once wasn’t enough, the Gospel reminds us again today: “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify… You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

It’s a pretty dismal picture.  But in the end it is at least another reminder that God is on the side of those that hurt and suffer the most.  “Not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

So, given all of this, how are we to be Christians now?  The epistle today calls us to spurn idleness.  This is no time to sit idly.  To be the people of Christ requires that we be people of work – people who won't stand still, or look away in the face of oppression and suffering.  It's a call we hear again and again.  We cannot have faith without works, for it is no faith at all. 

Regardless of who you voted for last week, our job is now a lot harder.  My job was not to tell you how to vote.  That’s done now, and even if I had done that, I doubt it would have seriously swayed anyone.  But it is my job to remind you of your calling as Christians: and that calling is and always has been to be on the side of God and to stand with those who are suffering.  To be the hands and feet of Christ in the world by alleviating suffering wherever you can.  It’s my responsibility to remind you of the vows we recited here just last week in our baptismal covenant: that we would seek and serve Christ in all people, and love our neighbors as ourselves; that we would strive for justice and peace among all people, and that we would respect the dignity of every human being.  We promised to persevere in resisting evil, and to repent when we fail.  We promised to use not just our words, but our lives to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.  And we also promised to keep praying.  To keep worshipping.  We promised to remain in this communion, and to keep coming to be nourished for the work by the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist.

In other words, we promised to keep engaging in public theology.  We promised to not let our faith be a secret, or merely some personal act, but to use it publicly, and yes, even politically.

People are suffering, and if we ignore it – if we sit by idly in the midst of it – we can’t call ourselves Christians.  If we rest on our own comforts and privileges without using them to help those Jesus described as the “least”, then we’re not standing where God would have us stand.

It’s not “too political”.  But it is who we’ve been called by God in Christ to be.  Whether you are celebrating the election this week or mourning it or even fearful because of it, there’s work to be done now.  There are people suffering and we are called to stand with them and to help.  So let’s get to work.  Let’s follow Christ.  Amen.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I am so damn proud of you I am weeping. All gurly-burbly, and everything. No apologies. Thank you, dear man. You are a wonderful priest. A good pastor. A damn fine preacher. I love you.