Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Jesus & American Politics

Here's the basic message from Sunday - the last one before Election Tuesday. I asked a bunch of friends on Facebook to give me some wisdom on what I ought to consider as I prepared this message. Their feedback was really, really helpful.


As followers of Jesus, some of us will be voting for the Republicans on Tuesday, others voting for the Democrats, others won't be voting, and others are still undecided about who to vote for on Election Day. I'm glad we have political diversity here - it's a sign of health and wisdom. I'm glad you're glad for the political diversity - it helps us be more thoughtful and considerate when we speak publicly about politics - though it doesn't mean we speak with less concern or conviction.

I think it is necessary that at least once in this very long political campaign season we together search some Scriptures as disciples of Jesus to better hear what God's Spirit is saying to us, and thus shape us as we prepare to vote. Please hear this: I am not presuming to know what candidate God has endorsed, OR which one he will prompt you to consider. I am NOT endorsing either candidate through this message.

Question: Does Jesus care about American politics? Yes. Why? Because politics is about power, and Jesus cares a lot about how power is used. Pretty much the good news is good news about power - Jesus is announcing the good news about how God is going to use power to liberate the world from the grip of evil, injustice, mercilessness and bondage. Jesus is very aware of how power can be used to liberate people (think Exodus and Easter...) and how power can be used to crush and enslave people (think Empire and Crucifixion...).

Jesus has demonstrated for his disciples how to use power. The kingdoms of this world use power over people, but the Kingdom of God as announced/introduced by Jesus uses power to come under people (power over/power under terminology comes from Greg Boyd - The Myth of a Christian Nation). Jesus makes really clear in John 18v36 that his kingdom, his usage of power is not of this world. He doesn't use his power to fight and thus force his way upon others. Jesus knows that his usage of power will prevail in the end - Revelation 11v15 is a central verse of that prophetic letter: the heavens announce that the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah and he will reign forever and ever!

We ought to be aware of the damage and destruction that comes from the world's usage of power. It's this awareness, then, that gives such power to the announcement of Jesus in Luke 4v18-19: I - in all my power - have come to bring good news to the poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed, the powerless! Disciples of Jesus understand that we are to use our power to come under them and set them free - this is what the Spirit of God is always up to in this world. Which is why Jesus invites us in Matthew 6v32 to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and he'll take care of everything else (which means don't worry...).

Yes it matters who we vote for. There are many wise Christians who have spent decades and even centuries considering how our faith ought to shape our political involvement and goals. But it also matters that you listen to the Spirit of God and you do what he prompts you to do so that you are using your power to set people free, so that your usage of power is good news to those on the underside of Empire. And this leads us to the main text for the morning, Mark 12v14-16; "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, give to God what is God's."

Here's some very interesting stuff about this text: the Herodians and Pharisees (usually enemies towards one another) have come together against a common foe - Jesus, in order to trap him and hopefully get him arrested and killed, and thus silenced. The Herodians are pro-Roman; the Romans have placed King Herod in power, thus the Herodians gleefully collect taxes and enforce Roman law and defend Roman abuses of power. They'd be happy to hear Jesus encourage the masses to give their taxes to Caesar (more money for them), but in this case they are hoping Jesus will denounce giving taxes to Caesar, which will make Jesus guilty of treason, and thus liable for quick crucifixion.

The Pharisees are anti-Rome and pro-Israel; mostly they are pro-strict adherence to Torah. The Pharisees believe that if enough people would adhere to Torah strictly, God would get rid of the Romans. The Pharisees are all about holy righteousness, which means avoidance of impurification- the Romans are basically making it virtually impossible to keep Torah, and this angers the Pharisees. They'd be happy to hear Jesus say that we are only to give taxes to God, but in this case their hoping that he'll advocate giving only taxes to God so that he'll be labeled as fomenting rebellion against Caesar and thus quickly crucified.

Jesus is too smart for that. The tax in question is the Imperial Tax- that which is levied on subject peoples of the Empire. Rome conquers people in bloody, tyrannical, devastating, genocidal fashion; then they tax those terrified people so that they can go on conquering others. Jesus tells everyone who is listening: go ahead and pay the taxes to Caesar. Caesar can have the coins he minted.

But note what he goes on to say: also give to God what is His. As soon as his Jewish listeners heard this, they would have immediately thought of Psalm 24v1 "The earth is the LORD's and everything in it!" He's subverting the claim of Caesar - Caesar can have his little bloody empire/coins, but the whole earth is the LORD's! He's also upbraiding the Pharisees - Caesar cannot keep you from keeping Torah. The LORD is bigger than Caesar, and no decree from Caesar, no law, no requirement from Caesar can keep you from keeping the heart of the law: Love God/Love your Neighbor (Mark 12v28-34).

This is why everyone was amazed: Jesus avoided any accusation of treason while at the same time subverting the claim of the Herodians and wildly expanding the belief-system of the Pharisees. Brilliant. Yes, the taxes you pay back to Caesar only seem to encourage him in his bloody "peace through victory" empire - HOWEVER - your love of God/neighbor will dull the glory of Rome and increase the glory of God, the light of your love will bit by bit drive back the darkness of Rome's devastation. Yes, you are paying taxes that support that darkness, but more importantly you are loving your neighbor instead of giving into bitterness, fear, and despair - and that is very, very, very powerful.

Paul picks up this theme in Romans 13 as he reworks this teaching of Jesus for the Christians meeting in Rome. Paul writes very, very carefully to his friends - they live in the city of darkness, the new Babylon, the place of bloody politics. The culture is anti-Christian, the society is anti-Christian, the schools, the entertainment, the marketplace is all anti-Christian. But Paul doesn't say to flee! Instead he sets up the tone of the chapter with this verse from 12v21 - Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. This is a basic reworking of: Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, give to God what is God's.

Notice how Paul carefully phrases the letter in 13v6-7: pay your taxes, respect those in authority over you (even if they are corrupt killers, unjust judges, slimy senators, etc). But hear what Paul goes on to say in 13v8-10: fulfill the law by loving one another (even your enemy...). Rome was all about rule of law - except that their law kept on killing off whole cities and classes of citizens.... Jesus was all about rule of law - the law of love: Love does no harm to its neighbor! Can you imagine a more subversive theme for Paul to promote in the heart of Rome? No wonder Jesus and Paul got killed by the Romans - they're not stupid! When enough people don't buy into the propaganda of the Empire, when enough people start loving their neighbor and personally doing no harm, when they seek first the kingdom of God and allow no fear of death (because of the promised resurrection) to sway them from righteousness - well who can stop that?

So, when you go to vote on Election Tuesday - carry with you a proper perspective of what is at stake. It does not matter who is elected - followers of Jesus will live out the good news no matter what. God does not decide to bless a nation solely based on who is the President and the choices that he/she makes. God primarily blesses a nation through the individual actions of those that claim to follow his Son and participate in His kingdom.

If you are voting motivated by fear, then you may be hard-pressed to vote out of love. If you are voting and worried about the direction of this country, you may be missing out on what God is doing all around you. If you are anxious about the wrong candidate getting chosen, you may be unaware of how creative and capable God is of still being able to work through any person/government.

It matters who you vote for - not because of who actually gets elected, but because of how you let the Spirit shape your decisions on who to vote for. It doesn't really matter who you vote for because God is always at work in this world to overcome all evil with good. Whether Christ returns this decade or in a hundred decades - Christ will be looking for people who worried less about electing the right candidate and who worked more to love the neighbor God put in your path.

Three things to do before you vote:
1) Pray - not that God would make your chosen candidate win - but rather that God would grant you wisdom and knowledge as you listen to his Spirit for direction.

2) Prioritize - rediscover what are God's priorities. Then discern, out of all the things that are God's priorities, which ones do you really care about? Then pray about what action God wants you to take about those things that you care about that are on God's priority list according to the Scriptures. This will help you keep your vote and its consequences in perspectives.

3) Discern the Political Realities - what is possible right now in light of who the candidates are, the force of the political winds, the mood of the country, and your sense of what God is already doing in and through you/your fellow followers.


diannaburt said...

Awesome sermon Tim! You really were able to hit the right cords but still not try to tell others how they should vote. You took an extremely difficult subject and nailed it!
Good on you. :)

Anonymous said...

how are you?

Awesome blog, great write up, thank you!