Monday, October 17, 2011

Faith in our Public Life - Kurt Nelson

Romans 13. 1-7 (and 12. 9, 14-20)
Dartmouth College Chapel, 10-17-11

I hope you’ll take a moment to notice
how clever my sermon title is this week.
Highlighting in just 5 words both the immense question
of the role of religion in political discourse,
and the immense issue of our belief
in political life itself.
Truly a marvel, I know.

I submit that we have in this country a serious problem
regarding our discourse in general.
But particularly about the intersection of
religion & politics.
Faith and public life.
It’s not a new problem.
But it is a relevant problem, in this moment.
Brought into sharp focus for me,
by three events this week:
The least significant and perhaps least hopeful
was during Tuesday's debate
when Michele Bachmann alluded to the
“the devil in the details”
in reference to Herman Cain’s 9 9 9 tax plan,
upside down.
Which might be funny,
in some alternate universe,
in which earnest, similar comments weren't heard so often.
but probably not even then.
We might call it the “weird” approach to faith in public life.

Second, Texas pastor Robert Jeffress,
from the very public pulpit of the Value Voter Summit,
Asked the following question:
“"Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person
or one who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?"
At first, this might seem like a thoughtful question.
One which we should ponder and wrestle with.
But really it was rhetorical.

Rick Perry, a born again Christian who was next to speak,
was the candidate that all listeners should embrace.
And Mitt Romney, who is Mormon,
was the “good moral” person
who was unfit for the nomination.
Jeffress, worrying that he might have been too subtle,
went on to clarify that Mormonism is a cult,
and Mormons worship a false God.
All of this is,
of course, relevant,
because they would thus be unfit for public service.
This is one of the more visible means
of engagement of this question,
of Faith and Public life.
That there ought to be a one to one relationship
between the professed beliefs of the voters,
and the professed beliefs of the candidates.
Thus, political battle lines are drawn
over who or what is the true “Christian” choice.

And the final category of faith and public life discourse
was exemplified for me,
by an sign I found abandoned,
as I wandered the Demonstration Grounds,
in the wake of Tuesday’s debate.
It read,
“I am the religious fundamentalists worst nightmare.
Because I believe in a good life for all people.
(not just the wealthy).”

Such a sign is certainly suggestive of a confused,
unfocused frustration with the state of affairs.
But more,
I think it’s suggestive of a very common idea,
that all questions and discussion of faith and belief,
need to be pushed out of the public sphere.
All religion is, in this worldview,
And all problems presumably stem from religion.
In this context,
faith is generally undesirable,
but perhaps acceptable,
so long as it stays private.
It’s worth noting,
I think,
that in many ways this is a mirror image
of the “one-to-one” value voter approach.
All or nothing.
Black or white.
Yes or no.

Again, I submit that we have a problem.
And, as we’re wont to do this term,
we’ll turn to the scriptures.
But as we do, we notice, I think,
that this is a problem we’ve come to honestly.
First, because we’re talking about the intersection
of ultimate belief,
and pragmatic decisions.
Of a vision of ideals,
and a political life organized around compromise (sometimes).
And second, because there is no easy scriptural picture
of the place of our faith in a democratic life.
Indeed, the idea of a governance that we could influence meaningfully,
would have been utterly foreign to the historical contexts
in which the scriptures were written.

A brief survey of the New Testament reveals little
which seems directly applicable to our situation.
We have a handful of enigmatic statements like
“render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's”
or images of "citizenship in heaven."
And all of this against a backdrop of
the dual Empires of God, and of Rome.
From the violent imagery of Revelation,
to the subtler images of the Gospels,
we have a text set fully within
the vast, violent, colonial Empire of Rome.
Jesus certainly,
and Paul likely,
were killed
not because they preached love of neighbor,
but because they were political dissidents.
Radicals even.
“Thy Kingdom Come, on Earth as it is in Heaven”
would have rung treasonous
in the ears of good Romans everywhere.
And we are left wondering.
It is a challenging and enigmatic collection of texts.

And then we have this text from Romans 13
And the more I ponder it,
the harder I think it is to understand.
It’s been read historically as a straightforward statement.
Perhaps Paul is simply imploring his followers
to follow orders and not cause problems.
In light of immense disparity of power,
Perhaps in light of bigger, theological concerns.
The problem is,
clearly Emperor Nero and the Roman empire
were not, as Paul wrote, defenders of the good,
and enemies to evil doing.
Clearly they were exercising the sword in vain.
Maybe instead this text is subtly subversive.
It leaves me uneasy,
and on shaky footing.
But I can make two statements I think:
First, political context – the organization of our public life,
is important. But not ultimately important.
And 2nd, I think we can do better.

Much as we might like to,
I don't think we can flee for the hills,
in search of a solitary life.
I don't think we can turn cynical.
And I don't think we can turn inward,
and embrace the idea that that our deepest convictions,
are not worthy of consideration in the public arena.
Because, I think, clearly our faith
is not merely a question of our inner state,
but of our outer action.
It was, after all, Gandhi who said,
“Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics,
don’t know what religion is.”

And I don't think we're called to create
in our politics, a heavenly Kingdom.
Electing only Christian officials,
seeking to impose ourselves on all.
Because on the one hand,
we understand that all forms of power,
religious and political,
are subject to sin.
And should perhaps thus be diffused
rather than concentrated.
But more importantly, I think,
because Paul’s message and Jesus’ message were,
that the Kingdom of God already is.
It’s not our job to make it.

And so, I think we seek a middle path.
And here, finally, I think we have firm scriptural ground,
especially in Paul's letter to the Romans.

"Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good." (Rom 12.9)
We can strive always for the good.
strive always for love.
And this will place us in curious relationship
with powers and principalities.
A relationship of fierce argument.
A relationship of loving critique.
And a relationship of, I think,
of thoughtful compromise and collaboration.
We are called to remain in relationship with our enemies.
And base that relationship on good, love, and conscience.

Paul is smart enough,
inspired enough,
to note that love and goodness are not only the end goal.
But the means of achieving change.
Is there a more poignant image,
at the intersection of faith and current events,
than heaping coals upon those with whom you disagree,
by striving always to be in loving relationship?

Thus, I believe we are called
to be always willing to argue and educate.
Never willing to dehumanize.
Bringing our deep convictions and passions
to bear on our public dialogue,
hoping for better.
expecting better.
And not forgetting,
that not only action,
but discourse, really matter.

And I believe the world is in deep need,
of those of us willing to take so seriously our convictions,
that we will bring them to bear on our public life,
lovingly. honestly. and thoughtfully.

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