Faith and Politics

Updated: Jul 23, 2019

Daniel 4: 4-18, 22-27 and Mark 5: 1-20

Faith has inspired political activity in powerful ways. William Wilberforce is one example. He was a political leader who was the primary person influencing the British Parliament in abolishing slavery. The movie, Amazing Grace, shows him to be a determined man of faith whose religious convictions provided his moral compasses compelling him to speak out – and keep speaking out against slavery until it was abolished. He spoke against slavery in Parliament for over 20 years! It was his faith that drove him into politics, and he often quoted scripture from memory on the floor of Parliament when arguing over the slave trade. Eventually, even in the British Parliament, righteousness prevailed over economic interests and prejudices. But things are different now. While it is probably true that faith still drives a few people into politics, what seems to be more common is that people seeking political office seek to claim a faith that has not previously been a part of their lives, much less a driving force.

I. For people of faith, the nation never comes first. God does. If Jesus is Lord, then no one and nothing else is. When early Christians proclaimed “Jesus is Lord!” they knew it was a political statement – it meant that Caesar was NOT the Lord. It said who had their primary allegiance.

Daniel served a king who did not share his faith and his life was uncomfortable. But when Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that frightened him, it was Daniel, worshipper of Yahweh, the Lord, who could explain it. Daniel listened to the king, and pondered – and was terrified at the meaning. But he explained anyway.

24 “This is the interpretation, Your Majesty, and this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king:
25 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.
26 The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules.
27 Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.” Daniel 4: 24-27

And it happened just as Daniel explained it would. Daniel, we should note, was not a politician – although he was a servant of the king. Daniel was a prophet. Daniel must have known that prophets often have uncomfortable words that must be spoken to those in power. Daniel must have known that his primary allegiance was to the Lord. He was a servant of God first and the king second. And so he speaks. Although the Bible is inherently political – it is all about God’s passion for a different kind of world -- there is danger when religion and the state are not separated. The Hebrew Bible differentiates between COURT prophets and GOD’S CHOSEN prophets because of the genuine message that is lost when prophets are indebted to power. The prophets of Baal in the story of Elijah and Ahab are one example, the prophets against Ezekiel rages are another. Prophets who are “owned” by power are immediately suspect.

James Madison ensured the institution of no state or official or authorized religion in our government. Freedom of religion is the FIRST Amendment to the Constitution. Madison had seen the abuses of power that occurred in the colony of Virginia towards Baptist ministers when the Anglican church had the power of the state behind it. Madison knew that several of the colonies, or communities within them, were founded by religious dissenters who were concerned to thave the protection of the nation to practice their religious beliefs freely. Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware come immediately to mind. Our founders wouldn’t tolerate Christianity as an official religion, mindful of Jews, deists and other faiths within their borders and determined not to have any preferential status for any particular faith.

But now we have some people trying to insist that we are a Christian nation in order to persecute people of other faiths – when we were never founded on that basis. It is a challenge to keep our allegiances in the right order. When Jim Wallis spoke to a conservative evangelical conference in Washington, D.C., he told the crowd, “We are Christians first and Americans second! We all agree with that right?” Wallis said that “It was clear the audience did not; they were grimacing and clearly preferred it be the other way around.”[i]

For people of faith, the nation can never come first. Faith must. For Christians, Jesus is Lord and there is no other.

II. In God’s eyes no nation is above any other. ALL nations are judged by God – and the bible is clear that nations are judged by how they care for the poor, the widows and orphans, and how they treat the stranger. If you read the judgments against the nations in Jeremiah, Israel and Judah are included. Even God’s chosen people don’t get a pass. ALL nations are under God’s dominion and will be judged – by how they treat the poor.

Nebuchadnezzar was told by the messenger from God that he must learn who is God and that HE is not – and not to overreach with his authority. Nebuchadnezzar is told that he must practice restitution – which in prophetic speech means “mercy to the oppressed.” The branches of the oppressive tree must be torn away. The king must identify with the victims of his own rule and must learn that it is God who is the sovereign.

26 The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules.
27 Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.” Daniel 4: 26-27

There is a warning in this text that goes beyond Nebuchadnezzar. It is a warning to any governments who prey on the vulnerable. It is a warning to any persons who support unjust structures of race, economics, or religious persecution. (Take a look at chapters 3 and 6 in Daniel on enforced religious practice and persecution of religious difference)

For people of faith, the Book of Daniel pushes us into patterns of confrontational speech with both political authority and religious authority that would align itself with the state.

So does the story of exorcism in Mark’s reading for today. It isn’t an ordinary exorcism. First, it isn’t ONE demon, it is Legion – a reference to Roman occupation. And specifically, Legion asks Jesus “not to send them out of the country.” The man in this story isn’t an individual, but a representative of the COUNTRY, the people of Israel. The unclean presence causing them to be out of their mind – is Legion, the Roman army which occupies Israel – them. This isn’t an exorcism story as much as a parable “indicting the Roman military for its role in the upheaval that was devastating the social fabric of Israel.”[ii] To compound the problem of the Roman Legion, Israel’s ruling class (including the Temple priests) collaborated with the Romans to raise extortionate taxes. Jesus “calls the Roman military presence in Israel exactly what it has proven to be to his people: a destructive, demonic, unclean presence.” He calls it by name. So must we. We must name the laws, corporations, government officials, practices and policies that cause the suffering of the people.[iii] “The fact of a hungry child in a land of plenty is evil. The fact of an elder facing the twilight of her years without pension, health care, secure housing, and respectful treatment is not just tragic, it is evil. If we are to follow Jesus we must call evil by its rightful name.”[iv] All of the rationales to justify inequality are evil.

  • The arguments for trickle-down economics that have created huge profits for corporations while their workers have seen their standard of living decrease each year.

  • The justification of poverty and attribution of laziness or apathy towards the poor

  • Entrenched racist policies on everything from housing, to education, to treatment by the courts and prison sentencing – and their normalization

  • Cronyism in government

  • All the “isms” that are sabotaging real community. Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism,

Like the man in Jesus’ story, we are standing in an imperial graveyard. Anthony Smith says, “Our body politic has habits that render it nearly impossible to get at the deep terrain of racial privilege, dominance, and vast economic inequalities that persist along racial lines. We scream in privileged agony, cut ourselves off from the painful history of others, and are unable to be chained to a profound practice of repentance. What would it look like for us to be clothed and in our right minds again? We would all strive to see and acknowledge our own complicity in the persistence of racial inequality. We would recognize our own privilege and not take it for granted. We wouldn’t attribute our successes solely to our “work ethic” and “rugged individualism,” but would see the racial dynamics that play into the success of some and the struggle of others. When Jesus is done with us, we would enter into a zone of racial justice treat thus far only by a few.”[v]

Jesus was political. He stood against the domination systems, and advocated for a different way of being in relationship with God and in community. He consistently spoke truth to power – the kind of thing that ends up getting prophets killed. The power of Jesus’ Gospel can set us free from oppression, including that we have enacted ourselves. Fear, apathy, and collaboration with the powers doesn’t then have the last word. Jesus shows concern for both individuals and the problems within the culture, the body politic.[vi]

The question for us is how we will name and cast out the “demonic legacies of racial imperialism in our collective imaginations and habits.”[vii] Our situation has worsened. Never before has a presidential election been won by a candidate who demonized one particular religious group, not only through his rhetoric, but also with policies that challenge our practice and laws on religious freedom. Political rhetoric proposed banning Muslims from immigrating to our country, ignoring the desperate conditions left after our wars in Iraq, and after the third draft, the courts upheld a Muslim ban. The statement was made, without any evidence, that Muslim refugees with a threat to the nation that they were “trying to take over our children and convince them how wonderful ISIS is and how wonderful Islam is,” and that Muslims should be required to register in a special database for the government to track them easily. Many of us have reacted in horror to these kinds of statements, have protested at airports and on the National Mall. We have named this as un-Christian, but very few people have named this attitude and these policies as un-American. Religious freedom, one of the fundamental ideas written into the founding documents of our country, may be more fragile than we have previously thought.

The Politics of Jesus: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love yourself and those who are like you.” “God’s will be done” – not “Our will be done.” Jesus‘ politics were based on principles, and rooted in the basic ethics of the Bible. Mishpat = justice and balance: everyone has the same rights, equitable resolution of conflicts. Sadiqah= righteousness: behavior that fulfills righteousness with God and people. Hesed= steadfast love: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.[viii]

A Different kind of Patriotism. James Forbes, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York, says that what is called for is “prophetic patriotism,” the willingness to strive to ensure that this nation is healthy, whole and secure and it conducting its affairs at home and abroad according to the political doctrines we claim to hold dear.[ix] This means good- faith criticism of government practices and policies is required. This form of patriotism tries to help the nation become its best self, more righteous and just. This we do with our first allegiance to the principles of faith, which helps us critique the principles of our nation and its leaders. It also means that we need to be equal-opportunity prophets – people of faith cannot be in the pocket of any political party – or we lose our ability to speak truth to power. We should hold to a broader moral vision than any party can claim, while speaking truth based in the vision of God of a different kind of human community where there is equity and justice -- to all sides. As people of faith with privilege, we need to stand up to politicians who would deny others freedom of religion, but also to stand against policies that infringe on our responsibility to the poor and vulnerable.

When we do that, we are aligning ourselves with God’s vision – where every person and every nation is valued and judged equally. If there is any preference, it is for the poor and vulnerable.

Faith and Politics will never have an easy relationship. We do not dare hold them of equal value, or we deny the God we claim to serve. God must come first – and with God’s priority comes a humility about our purpose. Nations are judged by how they treat the poor. Perhaps churches too. And we are not doing well. This tree too can be cut down. We too need an exorcism – so the Legion of “isms” that are tearing up our communities and driving us out of our minds leave and we can be whole. May God act among us for this. Amen.

[i] Jim Wallis, “A Theology for July 4.” July 3, 2019

[ii] Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How they have Been Corrupted. 145-6.

[iii] Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How they have Been Corrupted. 147-9.

[iv] [iv] Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How they have Been Corrupted. 150.

[v] Anthony Smith, “My Name is Legion for We are Many: Exorcism as Racial Justice,” In The Justice Project. P. 106.

[vi] Ched Myers, “Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship.” In “The Justice Project,” p. 102.

[vii] Anthony Smith, “My Name is Legion for We are Many: Exorcism as Racial Justice,” The Justice Project. P. 102.

[viii] Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How they have Been Corrupted. 320.

[ix] In Hendricks, 324.Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash