Sunday, March 11, 2018

Thoughts for LENT on Jesus, Politics, and Our Times

Of all the things we might "give up" for Lent, thinking (or pondering, as I like to say) is not one of them.  In fact, Lent is, quite possibly, the greatest time in the Christian Year to slow down and ponder how the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus inform how we live and who we aspire to be year round.  For me and for this particular season of Lent, I've tried to reflect on the issues reflected in the blog title.  Personally, I've found a freedom and, I would say, a pressing calling to speak out more candidly and frequently on political issues.  More about that in a bit.  The problem is, as I am as human as anyone, I often find myself "shooting from the hip" at the issue de jour.  While trying to be thoughtful and respectful, I recognize that it's easy to come across as partisan and judgmental. I am a partisan and mostly vote that way...that's just an honest confession, but as a Christian and American I want to be driven by the wiser counsel of my faith understandings and my appreciation for the broad view of our American history senza my rose-colored glasses.  Thus, this writing is for my own reflection.  If someone finds something for them here, ok.  But I think we have lost much of the testimonial aspect of faith, that being more than where and how I came to "accept" Jesus.  Testimonies are, by nature, unique and personal.  They are also, by nature, not a definition of absolute truth or moral superiority or a perfect reading/living of Holy Scripture.  Testimonies are not a counterpoint to the testimonies of others and they never should be used that way.  But, like Paul, I am "chief among sinners" in this regard as well.  These words are intended to be true to the above characteristics of testimony as I have outlined.  To the degree I have been honest with my own standards is for you to judge, and I accept that.

The death of Jesus has many meanings and layers of meanings.  Some I've considered, and many I'm sure i haven't.  But the death of Jesus was a political death.  The word political carries much baggage these days.  Maybe it always has.  Nonetheless, I find no real substitute that captures the essence of Jesus' crucifixion.  Jesus was executed because the religious leadership of his own Jewish community wanted the "rebel" gone...and because the Roman State's only compelling interest was keeping their Jewish constituents content.  Pilot has been portrayed in many lights.  But at the end of the day, he knew his major role was to protect the Pax Romana, and it became clear to him, trumped up though the charges were, that's what Caesar would expect of his governorship.  So, in that sense, even on Pilot's part, it was a political decision to sanction the decisions of the Jewish leadership.  Now, as to that leadership, much could be said.  I'm sure many of them were, like so many religious leaders, trying to do their best.  But, like so many religious leaders, they were so bound by their understanding of tradition and probably a bit punch drunk with their own clout that they were done with listening.  They were done with thinking or explaining.  The heretic who claimed to be "King of the Jews" (as much political in their mind as religious) had to go.  His power and influence were waxing and not waning as they had hoped. And, on the day we celebrate as Palm Sunday, he had the audacity to ride into the opposite end of Jerusalem on that donkey, mocking both the Roman Guard who always showed up Passover Week as a show of force against the Jewish celebration of "revolution" and the Jewish leaders who had no interest in resisting Roman in any meaningful way.  Such a disruption would surely reshuffle the powers they held at the blessing of Rome and their own community of faith.

All of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy met at the "crossroad" of both civil and religious politics.  This can never be overestimated and often escapes much reflection during Lent...or any other time for that matter.  Faith commitments almost always have political implications.  John Howard Yoder's book"The Politics of Jesus" is but one of many that make this point with ferocious candor.  And no one who has watched American politics or the American Church the last several decades can deny the ongoing evidence. 

So, what would Jesus do?  Well, that question faces all Christians each and every day in each and every opinion or action, whether public or private.  And, as we do with so many considerations, we all are wired to assume Jesus, of course, would be on OUR side.  Guilty, as charged.  But a summary consideration of the life and words of Jesus should give all of us pause.  Probably the most overt political statement Jesus ever made was "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."  He didn't dabble in partisan politics politically or religiously.  Oh, he read the religious leaders the riot act from time to time, but always in service of his greater for the poor, the homeless, the sick, those in prison, and a number of other human concerns stated most succinctly in Matthew 25, but scattered quite liberally through the Gospels.  Jesus was a prophetic advocate for the "least of these" far more often than a scorching critic of "current leadership."  But he spoke and acted nonetheless, knowing that his words and actions carried great political consequence even if they didn't immediately come across as political least as we understand it today.

I don't think it bold or presumptuous to say Jesus would not identify as Republican, Democrat, Independent.  He would shun any label of Conservative, Progressive, Moderate, Constitutional Originalist, Liberal.  He gave a clear answer to the young man who asked what mattered above all else, "Love God, and love neighbor."  There's not a politician nor political activist group in America who organizes their platform or day to day politics around that mandate.  Not one.  And to the degree any of us claim to speak on behalf of the Almighty, or the Son, we ought to check ourselves.  Certainly, this wandering minister included. 

So, do we sit with hands folded and mouths taped?  Well, Jesus didn't.  There were many times he spoke up when his disciples either publicly or privately upbraided him for his boldness.  They could read political tea leaves, too.  He didn't lecture them or put them down for timidity.  He just following his own sense of calling and let the consequences fall as they would.  But as he spoke boldly, he did not speak in a condescending or judgmental matter excepting a very few instances.  He proclaimed his truth and lived in accordance with those proclamations.  But he also showed profound respect to all humans.  It is interesting that Jesus, entitled more than any to speak judgement on behalf of God, seldom did so.  If he quoted Hebrew Scripture, as he did most frequently in the Gospel of Matthew, he did so to illuminate and expand, not to refute or destroy. 

Jesus was able to do the thing that is very hard, be both prophetic and pastoral.  I, too often, have made critiques of retired pastors who suddenly "find their voice" on any number of issues.  But, again, I'm guilty as well.  It is much easier to speak more authentically and, yes, more prophetic if you are not perceived as speaking "for" or "to" a specific people.  I don't have any easy answer.  Many have done it far more artfully and aggressively than I.  But to the degree my sense of calling compels me to speak for the days I have left, I hope to be faithful.

Being pastoral is more fun and affirming to be sure.  Seldom are you critiqued for a hospital visit or eulogy or word of prayer in difficult times or delivering communion.  Being prophetic is yet another thing.  First, prophets are, by nature, presumptuous.  They sense they should make others aware of a "word from God."  And, second, prophets past and present, well-known and obscure, don't gather the adoring flock of the shepherding pastor.  They say hard things and none of us like to hear hard things, at least about ourselves.  I surely don't.

So, in this Lenten season, I'm praying and pondering toward authentic, bold, thoughtful assertions of issues of politics and faith that seem to me congruous with the life of Jesus, knowing that the consequences are always in God's hands, ultimately.  I'll surely stumble more than I soar, but on this side of eternity, my feet, and words, and actions, will always be clay.

Pax Christi!