Saturday, April 05, 2014

Political Church

This week I was summoned for jury duty. I arrived Tuesday at the Washington County Courthouse ready to perform my civic duty. I figured I might be sitting in a room for a while with little to do, so I also brought along my Holy Week planning resources, and ended up with ample time to select hymns for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. It was a good morning, with a chance to chat with a Quaker jurist who likes literature as much as I do, and a young woman who used to work for the Springdale police department. 
Many conversations with fellow clergy around the country had left me skeptical as to whether I would make the cut and actually serve on the jury. Theories on why clergy are not selected abound. Perhaps prosecuting attorneys believe pastors will be too lenient, acquitting too many offenders. Perhaps defense attorneys believe pastors are too moralistic, and will not be able to presume innocent until proven guilty. Or perhaps juries will defer to pastors. One attorney in particular who also now works in the church said both sides of lawyers would worry a clergy person would dominate a jury. One pastor, the only pastor who reported serving on a jury, reported he had served on two juries, and in both instances was selected as the foreperson of the jury. So there you go.

That, all by itself, is interesting. Apparently in the eyes of the court, a religious leader on the court tips the scales in the jury room enough that it is better to dismiss the pastor.

All of this raises the larger question of the relationship between the political system and the church. We are a nation that has enshrined as its first amendment a commitment neither to establish a religion nor to prohibit the free exercise of it. Those protections, neither to establish nor to prohibit, are embedded in a larger amendment protecting a wide range of forms of free speech.

Transport these commitments back into the life of the church itself, and you have individual people of faith interpreting their right to the free exercise of religion in diverse ways. I think the majority of Christians prefer that politics not be established in the church in about the same way religion is not supposed to be established in the state. There are exceptions to this, I am sure. Some clergy use the pulpit, and some churches use their voice, to align directly behind specific partisan political positions.

Perhaps the way to think about this is to say that the church lives in a strange tension. It is not supposed to be caught up in partisan politics, taking one side or the other in a bicameral system of government. Yet on the other hand, the church is itself a politics. Church is inherently political. John Milbank, one of my favorite theologians on this topic, says that what political theory is to human history in a veiled way, theology is to the understanding of reality and metaphysics as a whole.

In this sense, it is impossible for the church not to be political. It has something to say to the polis, the city, either through its voice, what it says in its confessions, proclamations, sermons, newsletters, and more—and it automatically speaks its commitments through its actions in the world. The moment the church opens its doors to feed those who are hungry, or opens a health clinic or offers English as a Second Language classes for immigrants, its comportment towards the world and actions in it speaks a politics.

From my perspective as a pastor, I hope this kind of church politics would transcend the more typical partisan politics that gets us stuck. I’m not against partisan politics either, per se. There is a nitty-gritty aspect to politics that is unavoidable. We are always working out how to live together as a community and as a nation through the systems that have been given to us, and the cultures that form us. In the end, as much as a Christian would like to transcend partisan politics, they are going to have to go to the polling place and vote for candidates of a specific party.

The church, on the other hand, or any religious community, for that matter, is called to practice a kind of politics that points away from the political theory that applies only to human history, and instead guide our eyes and our hearts towards the fusion of the metaphysical and political understandings that is sometimes called political theology. Religious communities are free to transcend partisan politics because only through the politics they themselves practice can the partisan political landscape actually be transformed. This will seem paradoxical, but perhaps faith communities matter to the political not because they are apolitical, but because they are a different kind of political.

What I love about this when it is done well, at least in the Lutheran congregations I have known, is that Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Green party people all can share a common life together, and confess a common faith together, and then make commitments to change the world in very specific ways that will, in the end and to the world, look like a politics. But it will be, if led by prayer, a kind of divine politics, or an echo of divine government, small and edgy and never as powerful as the systems of the world, but always hinting at another kingdom, another realm, that is sneaking its way into this one.

Which is probably why after sitting for two hours of really fascinating questions for the jury from the prosecuting and defense teams, the prosecuting attorney, when asked if juror #38 could remain, said politely and thoughtfully, "We thank that juror and excuse him." At which point, I left the building, got in the car, and went to the elementary school to have lunch with the kids.

Published simultaneously in today's Northwest Arkansas Times.

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