A WORD FROM THE PASTOR Turning Down the Political Thermostat

“I don’t like disturbances in my place. Either lay off politics or get out.” – Humphrey Bogart, quelling a bar fight at Rick’s Cafe Americain, in “Casablanca”

            Last Saturday, I got sick of politics.

            The dozen pipe bombs, combined with the savage attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh, made me realize that our nation’s political life has gone off the rails. I had to say something about it. I didn’t want to mention it in the sermon. But I felt compelled to pray about it. So as I stood before God’s holy altar on Saturday evening and Sunday morning, I said something like this: “Lord God, help us never to give our ultimate allegiance to politics. Remind us that our ultimate allegiance belongs to You. Let us never try to find the meaning of our lives in politics. Help us see that the meaning of our lives always lies with You. If our political beliefs are not enacted in society, help us not see that as fatal. Nothing is fatal as long as we have our relationship with You.”

            It strikes me that the problem with our political life is that we are making politics a substitute for God. We feel that politics gives meaning to our lives, and grow very angry when our politics are challenged. And sometimes we even lash out violently.

            For a long time, we’ve had a problem with churches and other religious organizations getting involved in politics. I remember a number of years ago when the head of a prominent Christian ministry declared that he could not accept a certain candidate as the nominee for a political party. And I thought: “What business is it of his? He needs to tend to his ministry and not act like some political hack!” That was on the rightward end of the political spectrum. On the leftward end, there are church events that I stopped going to because they became more political rallies than times of sacred worship. (Such activities are highly illegal because of something called “the Johnson amendment.” Proposed by LBJ when he was a congressman, this law forbids tax-exempt religious organizations from supporting political candidates. I’m no fan of LBJ, but I am a fan of the Johnson amendment. Whenever a church tells you to support a certain candidate, the message is: “This is how GOD wants you to vote.” That’s pretty presumptuous.)

            But the problem today is not so much churches telling people to vote a certain way. What ails us rather is that politics itself has become a kind of religion. People find their meaning in life through politics (rather than God). People often regard their political views as sacred dogmas that are infallible and beyond question. Thus someone with a different position is not just an opponent–but an enemy. Someone who disagrees with them is not simply wrong or misinformed–the one who disagrees is evil. “My father made talking politics into a blood sport,” noted a graduate student at a large public university. It’s a sport that many people play.

            If we regard people who don’t accept our politics as evil, we naturally don’t want to be connected with them. So if they are friends, we break off the friendship. If they are relatives, we stop talking to them. If we find there are too many of them in our neighborhood, we might even move to a different neighborhood. People don’t date or marry across political lines anymore. And family gatherings have become minefields of possible political argument. (How many folks are looking toward the coming holidays with dread, thinking about family feasts that might be splintered by political division?)

            And sometimes–very rarely, but sometimes–the matter goes beyond broken friendships and family feuds and breaks out into actual violence.

            Substituting politics for faith has a pretty ugly history. The two classic examples are the Soviet Union and Communist China–atheist regimes where politics took the place of religion. Tens of millions of people died under those regimes. While the Nazis were not officially atheist, they certainly put loyalty to the state above loyalty to God. Again, exalting politics above God can have dreadful consequences.

            The Bible is pretty cool toward politics. There is a classic verse from Psalm 146:

            Put not your trust in princes, in human beings who cannot save. The fact that political leaders “cannot save” clearly tells us that politics cannot be the place where our lives find their ultimate meaning and value. Only God can give our lives value.

            Christ’s enemies tried to get Him involved in political controversies of the day. They raised the question of whether it was legitimate to pay taxes to the Roman government. Christ noted that the Roman Emperor’s picture was on the coins, and said: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” (Mark 12:7) Thus he indicated that, while politics does claim our attention, our ultimate loyalty must be to God.

            It is very hard to use the Scriptures to determine political policy. Jesus does indeed tell us to feed the hungry in Matthew 25:35...but then St. Paul in II Thessalonians 3:10 tells us “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”This is not a contradiction; Christ and Paul were speaking to different situations. But it still shows us how hard it is to draw specific political policies from the Bible. (Who knows? Maybe this is a deliberate strategy on God’s part so that neither side can declare, “Your ideas are evil!”)

            Certainly politics cannot save us–again, put not your trust in princes, in human beings who cannot save. The only ruler who can save is the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, who shed His precious blood on the cross to take away our sins. He did not lash out in anger or violence–rather, He let violence be done to Him on the cross. Our allegiance to Him comes before any political ideology, whether of the right or the left. Politics does not save; Jesus does.

            The Bible’s coolness toward politics may be just what we need to lower the thermostat on our overheated politics. A few practical guidelines toward this end:

            I never want to regard someone who disagrees with me on politics as an enemy. After all, would I regard someone who disagrees with me on religion as an enemy? Is politics more important than religion?

            I never want to break a friendship with someone who disagrees with me politically. After all, would I break a relationship with someone of another faith? Is politics more important than religion?

            I never want to nurture hate in my heart for someone who disagrees with me politically, or regard them as evil. After all, would I hate someone of another faith, or regard them as evil? IS POLITICS MORE IMPORTANT THAN RELIGION?

            In any society, politics is inevitable. But it should never take the place of God. Again, put not your trust in princes. Rather, the Psalm continues: “Blessed are those whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord your God.”

            God loves you and so do I! (Even if you sometimes vote differently from me!)