The man was not a big fan of the church to begin with, but that’s another story. When he walked back into a meeting not long ago after a prolonged absence, he was immediately hit with an impassioned speaker calling us to prayer about a burning issue. I can’t remember which issue. It could have been caged children or climate change, the heroin scourge or income disparity, or the continued marginalization of Philadelphia school children. In our church it would be surprising if something like that were not a part of the meeting; it’s part of our liturgy. After all, our proverb says: We are obliged to speak out against unjust laws and practices that oppress people and ruin creation.
He left the meeting angry and pretty much decided not to come again. When the pastor asked him about it, he asked her back, “Why is Circle of Hope so political?”
The question has been asked many times before and never by someone who was lost in wonder. So let’s ask it again. Is Circle of Hope too political? If you’re part of another rendition of the church (I know this gets read in India periodically), you can ask it about your own church: “Why are we, or are we not, so political?”
First, about the word
The word “political” has two general meanings. The first one is not what the man was worried about, but it might have been what the church was doing. The word political can simply name something relevant to politics — it has political origins, implications, or effects.
To politicize something in this sense means to make it a topic of politics and public concern, that’s all. It does not necessarily belong to a party or even a “side.” It is just an issue we share. President Obama’s former science advisor John P. Holdren used the term this way when he noted, “Science is already politicized (even if many scientists themselves resist admitting it),” because decisions about public funding for science are “made through a political process.”
But the word political also has a second meaning that links it directly to political activity. People use the word this way when talking about “political competition” or “political protest,” or when saying a previously routine matter “has become very political.” If something is political in this sense, it is about moving the people toward one’s desired ends, or just thwarting one’s competitor, usually with politics understood as the pursuit of power.
To politicize something in this sense thus often has a pejorative meaning, suggesting unsavory methods and a lack of principle. In debates over climate change, vaccines, and similar issues, critics of mainstream science often claim it has been politicized in this sense. Bob Walker, for example, a former congressman and campaign adviser to Donald Trump, recently said that “Climate research is necessary but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing.”
Sometimes we are too political
It is the second sense of the word that my friend walked out on. In the cutthroat political atmosphere of the U.S., many people are sick of everything being political. Someone struggles with their identity and they enter a political competition in which one needs to choose a side before they can figure out which side they might be on if there were even a reason to have sides! Very few people think children separated from their parents and sent to unknown places is a good thing, but once it gets to be a political struggle among the authorities it is hard to remember what we agree about.
I have walked out on a few of our presentations myself, at least in my heart. When someone comes before the group assuming we all agree and then implies that everyone on another side of their issue is in league with the devil (and they often mean the Republicans!) that’s too much for me. We’re often as bad as the politicians who seem to be playing a blood sport instead of serving the common good. Such people actually think if they don’t play politics well, nothing will get done. Maybe they are right about the Senate, but they are not right about the kingdom of God. I don’t need to cite a Bible verse; you all know that the ways of the world are not the way of Jesus.
No one played politics like that less than Jesus. That has to be a main reason the government killed him. He violated all their rules while being perfectly innocent before them! At the end, he was the forgiving victim of their power struggle and then rose from the dead to show how powerless it really was. So if we are throwing out Jesus to engage in society’s power struggle in the name of Jesus (since we need to play politics well to get the will of God done), I’d say we are WAY too political. If our politics-become-holiness damns people with whom Jesus is not finished, we are WAY too political.
Everything, in a sense, is political
The first sense of the word is less understood these days, it seems, at least among Christians. On the one hand, many blindly accept that politics means a competition for who wins. More commonly, on the other hand, they think being involved in politics is dirty, so they just avoid the whole thing. Their solution to being overly involved and responsible is to be avoidant and irresponsible. “The church should not be involved in politics,” is what they say. Since we are the church, I suppose that implies a strangely divided heart — part of us involved in “church,” but the rest of us allowed to be involved in politics.
There is not much that is not political if we are all in this together. The word came into common use from the title of Aristotle’s book meaning “affairs of the cities” or “of the people.” Whatever rises to the attention of the people is politicized. For instance, in U.S. society, people are debating whether Flint’s tainted water is a political football, or just something everyone should be concerned about. Should refugee families (or just anyone trying to cross the border) go through ten years of arguing and anxiety among the powers that be or should they be cared for in a respectful way? Should politicians use science to scare people or to help people? Americans don’t know the answers to those questions, as a people, but they are political questions for everyone.
In this first, major sense of the word, Jesus was wildly political. The Romans knew he was a rival king, questioning the legitimacy of their power. The religious leaders knew he was a rival rabbi, teaching things that upended the status quo and questioning the foundations of their retributive law and scapegoating system. Greedy, sexually immoral, unreconciled, uncaring, godless people all found their conditions raised up into public view as Jesus taught, healed and saved — all in the public eye, for the most part, raising the issue of a right relationship with God, revealing our utter need for grace. Nothing was privatized, nothing was hidden, nothing was only secular or sacred.
If anything, our church is not political enough!
Don’t get me wrong, if “political” is just more insensitive “holiness” that angrily draws lines and damns the other side motivated by a worldly lust for power that’s not from the Lord. We might as well be Democrats instead of Christians, who will never have the forgiving victim, Jesus, at the center of their platform.
But if, as Jesus followers, we persistently raise the questions that need to be answered by the people in this era, I think we are in step with the Lord. For the most part, we don’t shy away from boldly raising the questions, even if someone walks into our meeting and judges us according to their unloving (or maybe just unconsidered) standard.
Our compassion teams often bring up what needs to be brought up while never having a meeting. Do we need to be slaves to debt? Do black lives matter? Can we stop mass incarceration of people of color and the poor while the 1% are unaccountable? Can we find ways to share? Can at least the Christians hold hands across the borders? Can we proactively make the peace we all want rather than the war that never achieves it? Can we live in harmony with our watershed? Can we feel the land and farm it even in the city? Can doing business do good? Do children and the suffering have to live on the margins? And more. I think they do politics well. they bring things up with their actions, not just their tweets. That’s a lot like Jesus.
Like I said, I think almost everything Jesus did was purposely “political” in the first sense of the word. For one final example, one of the most overtly political things he did was go into the Temple and reclaim it as a house of prayer. The people who dominated the temple questioned his politics.
“The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” John 2:18-9.
At his trial his accusers said, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58).
The accusers were talking about the central political symbol of Jerusalem and the entire Jewish people and Jesus was talking about himself. The presence of God needed to become a political issue. As it turns out, the accusers were unwittingly right, His death destroyed the old order and his resurrection created the new. That’s good politics. We dare not be pushed off the scene by fear or disdain, when we look at others or they look at us. Jesus came for us all and people need to see that. Jesus can transform our politics, starting with his church, and people need to hope that.