What a disaster last week! There was not a devastating hurricane smashing into the coast wiping out the power grid, no bombs went off, it was not due to a flu epidemic, nor even a meteor or earthquake suddenly catching us unaware and driving us to our knees. What we have got here is a failure to communicate, to quote the sheriff in Cool Hand Luke. This was the most expensive civil war re-enactment in history, an estimated $24 billion dollars in losses. Thank God that is over with and we are safe…for about 88 days until we hit the next planned crisis and go to the brink once again.
What does this have to do with the church, all this political divide? We are divided much like the country. Last Tuesday, as our national failure to communicate deepened, proponents from both sides gathered and oddly enough, sang Amazing Grace. A gathering of 70 progressive clergy organized the “Pilgrimage for Courage and the Common Good,” organized by Faith in Public Life. Sister Simone Campbell, a progressive religious folk hero for her Nuns on the Bus tour, gave the opening prayer. After singing Amazing Grace, the group began working its way down the hallways to visit House offices. At each office, a few religious leaders and low-wage workers affected by the shutdown spoke with staff. They left a letter from religious groups which said,
“As people of faith and conscience, we urge you to place shared democratic values above short term political expediency, exercise the courage to fund our nation’s government, raise the debt limit without preconditions and get back to work on a faithful budget that serves the common good.”
At the same time House Republicans sang Amazing Grace at a meeting in which they decided to dig in their heels against any compromise that did not extract concessions on the Affordable Care Act. Rep. Darrel Issa said that the hymn singing was a sign of the caucus’s solidarity in standing up to what Rep. Tim Huelskamp derisively called “the Senate Surrender Caucus.” At a Values Vote Summit of Conservative Christians last weekend a speaker from the Heritage Foundation told the crowd that the Senate was busy cutting a deal and it would be “total garbage.”
I received an email from a progressive Christian group, urging action on things I agree with, that a biblical faith should not cut off food or medical care for the poor, that we are called to love our neighbor, and I was just about to join up and donate when these words struck me. We have to show the media that Christianity is not all about the Tea Party. We have to take back our faith. I had two simultaneous reactions. 1) That is exactly right. We progressive Christians have to get organized and get our message out. Then came reaction 2) The take back our faith language is exactly the same as Christian conservatives and the Tea Party are using. Take back America for Jesus. When the other side said it I found it threatening. I thought, wait an open, multi-cultural America, a Green America with a decent social safety net, universal healthcare and support for gay marriage is my America. I know its part mine because I sang with Pete Seeger, “This land is your land, this land is my land, from California, to the New York island.” It really hit me that we are all singing Amazing Grace, but we are not living it or believe anything amazing can really happen. Christians of differing theologies are barely speaking to each other, as we enter this theological tug of war. Does Christianity have something different to offer the world other than mirroring the partisan strife of our two parties?
The words of Jeremiah have been coming to mind for the last two weeks. Jeremiah’s advice nearly 3000 years ago is astonishing. Let me tell you the story. This scripture is taken from an actual letter Jeremiah wrote to friends in Babylon in 594 BCE. His friends had been taken into exile about 3 years before. King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon quelled a rebellion in the Kingdom of Judah and deported the elite of Jerusalem, including the queen mother, court officials, military leaders, skilled craftspeople and many priests. They were hostages to enforce the loyalty of Judah to Babylon. About this time there was political unrest in Babylon and two prophets in exile proclaimed that Nebuchadnezzar was about to fall and they would go home soon. People anxiously expected that they would go home soon, back to their normal lives. Instead, the King quelled the internal strife and the prophets were killed along with a few other exiles just for good measure.
Jeremiah’s advice to those in exile is unexpected and unwanted, but realistic. Build houses, settle down, plant gardens and harvest their produce, marry and beget offspring, and engender another generation, multiply and do not decrease. I imagine the reader thinking, “Jeremiah, I don’t want to bloom where we are planted. This is a foreign land of strange customs and we are second class citizens here. We just want to come home. We want our old life back.”
Jeremiah has even more tough wisdom for them in verse 7, “Seek the welfare of the city (the country) I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Not only were they to bloom in the unwanted ground they were planted in, but they were to pray and help those who held them captive. This advice must have hit the reader like a bucket of cold water.
Perhaps we are always a people living in exile, as Christians believing in loving our neighbors and hearing Galatians 3:28 in our ears, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.” Doesn’t this imply that we have a higher calling than any political party is currently offering us? Neither side of the political divide in America is going to simply defeat the other. It is popular right now in liberal circles to mock Ted Cruz, and laugh at the latest Sarah Palin or Michele Bachman quote, and assure ourselves that they are going to fade back into the woodwork. For historical perspective, George Wallace was soundly defeated by LBJ, in the elections the year I was born in 1964, and James Restin wrote in the New York Times that was the last gasp of the Confederacy. There has been a pro-central government and pro-states rights tension since we were founded as a nation. This isn’t going away, and neither side will win without destroying what we love and value.
We are living between the tension of two sets of Christian values, first – justice for the poor and inclusion of those at the margins vs. being ministers of reconciliation who seek to overcome human divides. This is why we must never be reduced to the Democratic Party at prayer, or the Republican Party at prayer, singing Amazing Grace but not really seeing. Augustine gave us a way to think about this as the Roman Empire fell, and the church had too closely alingned itself with the Roman imperial system. In “The City of God” he wrote that We live in two cities simultaneously, the City of Man, the human, earthly city where we have homes, work and live and fight about politics, and the City of God, a realm beyond us where there is real justice, peace, compassion and harmony. It is the reign of God, the ideal the calls us away from our small selves to a common life centered in God. The City of God and the human city are always in tension, and we do our best to discern and act rightly, knowing that it is always a partial and incomplete view that falls short of the Kingdom of God. I can never simply say that I am part of Children of light, and those who disagree with me children of darkness. I may make enemies doing what I think is right, yet Jesus calls me to love them.
If Martin Luther King, Jr. could proclaim the necessity of loving segregationists, as the dogs and fire hoses were brought out to oppose the civil rights marchers, as a church was blown up and four little girls killed, how then shall we live? It is not about what we believe, and standing up for our beliefs, but also how we do it. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. You don’t get to pick just one out of three attitudes. I can’t say, “Today I will do justice, but tomorrow I will love kindness and mercy, tomorrow I will be humble, tomorrow I will love my neighbor.” It’s always justice with mercy and humility.