The politics of Jesus

By Les Kinsolving

Should the church be involved in politics?

That was an issue on which I had (and still have) strong opinions – in the affirmative.

This is the case even though I realize that numerous pastors would disagree with me in whom they support for election.

While I was rector of an Episcopal church in Washington state in the 1960s, we always had post-service coffee hour discussions. Anyone in the congregation was at full liberty to disagree with anything in my sermon – which often dealt with political issues (as did the Hebrew prophets, including one who was beheaded and another crucified).

When I was once questioned about what was termed “bringing politics into the pulpit,” I responded:

“Can you cite even one moral issue which has not been the subject of legislation?”

From one of my parishioners (who was one of the most brilliant and congenial of the many lawyers I have known) came the following: “When have you heard of any congressional or state legislative bills dealing with the 10th Commandment?”

I remember joining in the congregational mirth, in admitting that I had never, EVER heard of any proposed legislation dealing with covetousness.

Now, from one of the nation’s largest and oldest parishes (founded in 1732) The Falls Church, (for whom the Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia suburb is named) there came, in the Sunday, Sept. 14, church bulletin distributed to more than 2,000 parishioners (in two simultaneous church services, in different buildings), the following message from the rector (clergyman in charge), the Rev. Dr. John W. Yates II:

“There is a movement afoot to recruit pastors next Sunday to ‘preach politics.’ The Alliance Defense Fund wants to challenge an amendment to the Internal Revenue Code, dating back to 1954, which says non-profit, tax-exempt entities (including churches) may not ‘participate in, or intervene in … any political campaign on behalf of any political candidate.’ It is hoped that, in their sermons next week, pastors will not only evaluate the current political situation and what sorts of candidates are desirable according to Scripture, but will also deal with specific elections and candidates, with specific recommendations about whom to support. That would, of course, violate the law.

“Over the years our policy here has been never to analyze individual candidates or to speak directly about political issues from the pulpit or in any other public forum. Candidates have visited us and attended worship, but we have refrained from singling them out in any way. I’ve always felt that our membership is extraordinarily well-informed on political matters and needs little encouragement from me to participate fully in the electoral process.

“But this law has always troubled me. I’m skeptical about the government’s authority to dictate to the church in this way. There is a cultural elitism in America that would like to keep religion privately comforting but publicly irrelevant! But if our biblical faith does not inform and shape our thinking on public policy and guide us in whom to vote for, we are simply failing in our responsibility as followers of Christ. We won’t always agree with one another, but it is unthinkable that followers of Christ wouldn’t evaluate candidates policies in light of the Word of God. I don’t plan to break the law next Sunday. But I could envision a time arising when I would feel that I would be disobeying God not to speak to you about some political issue or election.”

When I visited The Falls Church and read this memorable message to his parishioners, I did not agree with all of it – especially the “policy here has been never to analyze individual candidates or to speak directly from the pulpit or in any other public forum.”

Surely the man whom Christians believe to be the Son of God discussed in detail – and in no uncertain terms – one of his country’s two leading political parties: the Pharisees.

And while I can’t remember, when I was a parish priest, endorsing any candidates for public office, I surely recall expressing my strong disagreement with politicians on one issue or another.

In Jesus of Nazareth’s country, the other major political party was the Sadducees. They controlled one of the largest of all the nation’s sources of revenue: the offerings of devout people who came from all over that nation – and the known world – to worship in Jerusalem’s great temple.

When the man I worship came into this Holy City on Palm Sunday, he was cheered by thousands.

When, later that Holy Week, he saw Sadducean-installed money changers cheating the devout, he quite violently upset their tables, and using “a small scourge (whip) of cords” he (dare I say it?) beat the hell out of them, driving them out of the temple. “It is written that my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people – but yea have made it a den of thieves!”

For this action (rather than anything else with which they disagreed with him) he was seized – in the middle of the night – in the Garden of Gethsemane.

This was by order of a majority of the Jewish legislature – who were infuriated by this Jewish prophet from Nazareth and his 11 Jewish apostles (having bribed one of them to betray him).

Along with a midnight-recruited crowd who agreed with them (by contrast to the much greater crowd of Jesus’ supporters on Palm Sunday), they successfully pressured the Roman procurator, or military governor, to enter eternal infamy. For Pontius Pilate consented to a legal lynching, followed by a brutal lashing and the long-lingering agony of crucifixion.