Last month, I shared my commitment to avoid preaching politics from the pulpit. For some of you this was exciting news – you’ve had enough of ministers telling you how you ought to vote. For others, it was a bit confusing – isn’t this what a good “prophet” ought to be doing? In fact, to some it seems that this is exactly what Jesus was doing throughout most of his ministry! What could be more political than the commandment to “love your neighbor” (Mark 12:31)?
The truth is, our beliefs about Jesus’s teachings and their relationship to the political scene (both then and now) are often so strongly rooted that whether we lean liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, it becomes difficult for us to read the biblical text without engaging a political lens. To illustrate, I once preached a sermon on the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Unlike most of my sermons in which I read the text, share some background, and move on to exposition, I determined to keep this one simple. I read the text and provided a bit of cultural background. Then I committed the sermon to God and sat down. I didn’t draw any cultural parallels or suggest ways to implement the teaching in our local community. I didn’t even tell my congregation what the text meant; I just read it.
The next day, I began receiving angry e-mails about my having preached a “political” sermon! Why? Because my listeners had grown so used to filtering sermons through the lens of their politics that they could no longer hear that Jesus was really trying to teach a lesson on morality.
There isn’t, of course, any question that personal morality and politics are intertwined or that a Christian’s personal morality should impact their politics. But it’s important to recognize that the fact that these two issues intersect at the center of our mental Venn Diagrams does not make them identical to one another.
So let’s start by taking a moment to define “politics.” The Oxford Languages Dictionary defines the term as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.” In other words, political activity is tied to the action of governments as they make broad policy decisions intended to bring about specific ends for stereotypical subsets of people, i.e., “minorities,” “immigrants,” “students,” “retirees,” etc.
As much as we condemn stereotyping, this isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s helpful to recognize the broad similarities across specific subsets of individuals – especially when doing so helps us to identify problems that need to be addressed. When I was in seminary, for example, I noticed that each student with disabilities was fighting an independent battle for reasonable accommodations. While a few students were meeting with success, the vast majority felt like they were losing. This was due in part to how overwhelmed the administration was trying to sort through everyone’s unique needs. In banding together, disabled students and their allies were able to identify some broadly shared requirements and bring actionable items before the board. (It turns out, for example, that one disabled parking slot is insufficient for a building in which eight students with mobility challenges are attempting to attend a single class.)
I mention this because I want to be clear that engagement in politics (the establishment of broad governing policies) isn’t a bad thing and can, when done prayerfully, be quite useful. But it’s also important to note (and here is where I get controversial): Jesus never engaged politics through his preaching.
That’s right. Though many of Jesus’ teachings have good applications in the political realm, they were never directed at the nation’s political leaders or intended to influence national policy. Jesus didn’t offer commentary on Caesar’s greed for power, Rome’s policies on slavery, or its use of torture to punish criminals (despite the fact that crosses with their suffocating victims were a common sight on the roads outside of occupied cities). Instead, he focused on developing the individual moral character of each of His disciples so that they in turn could engage these issues following His death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven. His primary concern was not how His followers responded to or enacted policy but how they interacted with individuals relationally.
This may, in fact, shed significant light on how Jesus was able to attract disciples from such a broad variety of political perspectives to begin with.
- Matthew was a tax collector and in league with the empire.
- Simon was a Zealot, a member of a group that many felt bordered on a terrorist organization since it advocated the violent overthrow of the empire.
- James and John were faithful Jews awaiting the coming of the Messiah – a political leader who would establish a new, more peaceful empire.
Jesus’ teachings weren’t directed toward the empire. Of equal note, they weren’t directed toward the population at large either. Instead, His concern was the Jewish religious community. That’s right – those who professed faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and were struggling to figure out how to live that faith in a world in which God was not king and religious plurality was the norm.
I’d like to draw your attention back to the oft quoted “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Though in a present-day American political context this gets repeated with such fervency that it sounds like the first commandment, it isn’t. In fact, it’s the second. The first is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30) – something that is extraordinarily difficult for a government (especially one that deliberately advocates for separation of church and state) to do. Yet as Christians, this first commandment is our primary call.
It is our morality as reflected in our individual relationships (first with God and then with others as individuals created in God’s image), not our politics – that defines us. Jesus was training His disciples to approach the rest of humanity not as stereotypical groups, but as individuals. And this is where things get sticky…
You see, politics will always be easier than relationship. This shouldn’t be surprising since the principles that govern our politics (regardless of which way we lean) allow us to quickly identify the chief needs of others and to have the proper response to those needs always at the ready. See a homeless woman holding a sign asking for money for food? A political response already knows her story and what she really needs – a better work ethic, training in financial management, a rehab program, maybe all three. Perhaps we’ll help her out (not her and not today, but someone else later) by advocating for tougher parenting, the addition of financial training to High School curriculum, or the establishment of better insurance options for addicts. We feel good about ourselves and say that we fulfilled Jesus’ command to “love our neighbor.” But have we really?
Remember that Good Samaritan mentioned earlier? If you’ve taken time to read the story, you know that when the Samaritan comes across this unnamed victim lying naked and beaten by the side of the road, he doesn’t hurry by thinking about the importance of advocating for better policing of Roman roads or the establishment of some new church program to clothe the naked. Instead, he stops and looks the dying man in the eye. He doesn’t know the whole story – whether the man who was beaten provoked the robbers to a confrontation, or whether he was the member of a rival faction – what he knows is that the man if left on his present course is going to die. And God (yes, Samaritans also worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) has commanded him to be a bringer of life. So he bandages the man’s wounds and delivers him to safety. Then he goes a bit beyond and provides a few resources to ensure that he’s not just delivered from the immediate threat of death, but that he has a chance at recovering a “normal” life.
And this, is what Jesus means when He tell us to “love our neighbor.” He isn’t talking about policies, but about persons. True love is rooted in relationship. As your pastor I care about how you do (or don’t) approach the homeless person in the parking-lot, the neighbor whose electricity just got shut off, or the overwrought mother in the grocery line; not because there is one “right” way to respond, but because there are a multitude, each one as different as the individuals involved. We will only know which one God is calling us to if we treat each encounter as its own and each individual as a unique creation of our God.