Monday, November 21, 2011

Religion and politics - part 1

English has some evocative, anthropomorphic collective nouns for groups of animals. For example, a group of lions is a pride, of whales is a pod, of crows is a murder, and of geese is a flock. One the loudest, most obnoxious, aggressive, and least intelligent primates is the baboon. A group of baboons is, perhaps appropriately, a congress.

Many people regard politics as a dirty business in crisis. Is that widely held perception accurate? What, if anything, is the proper relationship between religion – especially Christianity – politics?

This post is the first in an occasionally interrupted series on Religion and Politics that explores those and other questions. In particular, this post offers a definition for two key terms (politics and state) and highlights some of the interesting parallels between the Occupy and Tea Party movements.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines politics as a plural noun, usually treated as singular, denoting “(1) the activities associated with the governance of a country or area OR a particular set of political beliefs or principles; (2) activities aimed at improving someone’s status within an organization… (3) the principles relating to or inherent in a sphere or activity, especially when concerned with power and status…”

J. Philip Wogaman, a Christian theologian and ethicist with whom I studied, in Christian Perspectives on Politics, observes that politics originally denoted the interaction of citizens in the polis (Greek for city or state). A state consists of “society acting as a whole, with the ultimate power to compel compliance within its own jurisdiction.” States claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Politics thus connotes the ideas, forces, and relationships that generate political power.

In other words, politics are our social reality. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that a self-centered, fearful people need a Leviathan (i.e., monarch) to impose restraint and order on them that they may live in safety. John Locke defended a more positive version of Hobbes’ theory, contending that people enter into social contracts to form civil, democratic societies for their mutual benefit. Rousseau’s position was yet more positive. People form communities to enlarge their individual existence and identity.

Theologically, each of those views expresses a different understanding of human nature, ranging from the total depravity implicit in Hobbes’ view to the perhaps tarnished but not destroyed imago dei consonant with Rousseau’s view. Regardless of the position that resonates most closely with one’s own theology, all three positions capture the reality that no person exists independent of others. The early Christian hermits, precursors to the monastic movement, who sought to live in isolation from other humans and the temptations of society remained dependent upon the larger community (e.g., for food or clothing). Biblically, God’s people live covenant with one another and with God. Contemporary Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas helpfully insists that Christian ethics are inherently political, defined by the narrative of Jesus.

The Rev. Canon Giles Fraser, formerly the Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, has written:

For too long the Church has been obsessed with its own internal work­ings and with silly arguments about sex. Now is the time for a new debate and a new emphasis. For if we are not fully involved with complex dis­cussions about the relationship be­tween financial justice and the way our financial institutions work, then we might as well give up on being a proper Church and admit that we are the spiritual arm of the heritage industry. (“Sitting on a fault-line at St Paul’s,” The Church Times, Issue 7755, 4 November 2011, accessed at

Both the Occupy and Tea Party movements claim to represent the 99% of the population in the United States and the United Kingdom who feel disempowered and disenfranchised because of the current economic recession and the barely discernible, limp recovery. For details on wealth, income, tax burden, and housing disparities as well as on the federal government’s fiscal problems, see slides 8 to 15 of my Religion and Politics – part 1 PowerPoint presentation. For more on the Occupy movement, see Ethical Musings: Musings about Occupy Wall Street – parts 1, 2, and 3 and Ethical Musings: Why Occupy Wall Street Resonates with People.

The prophet Ezekiel declared, “As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16:48-50)

Amos, another prophet, reiterated those sentiments: “Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” (Amos 5:11-12)

And Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourner’s Community in Washington, DC, and a contemporary prophet, echoes his predecessors:

      When they stand with the poor, they stand with Jesus.

      When they stand with the hungry, they stand with Jesus.

      When they stand for those without a job or a home, they stand with Jesus.

      When they are peaceful, non-violent, and love their neighbors (even the ones they don't agree with and who don't agree with them), they are walking as Jesus walked.

      When they talk about holding banks and corporations accountable, they sound like Jesus and the biblical prophets before him who all spoke about holding the wealthy and powerful accountable. (“Praying for Peace and Looking for Jesus at Occupy Wall Street,” Huffington Post, October 6, 2011)

The next post in this series on Religion and Politics will explore theological and ethical principles important for Christian participation in politics.

No comments: