10 February 2017
A few days ago, a friend gave me some friendly criticism. He suggested that I had begun to write more about politics than theology. He encouraged me to “stick to theology please.” His reprimand invited not a rebuttal but a longer reflection.
The word “politics” comes from the old Greek word politica. It concerns achieving and exercising governance over a human community like a city or a state. Politics, in the traditional humanitarian sense, strives to maintain the common good. In our American political tradition, of course, key political expressions of the U.S. common good are found in the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution: all people are created equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The 1787 U.S. Constitution stresses the importance of insuring justice, domestic tranquility, liberty, and the general welfare – for all.
“Theology” comes from two Greek words: theos and logos, meaning discourse about God. The traditional definition of theology is that it is “faith seeking understanding.” Theology probes and tries to understand and interpret the human experience of the Divine, whether called “Ground of Being;” “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;” “the Sacred;” “God;” or “Allah.”
In every generation, Christian theology strives to provide a believers’ narrative that makes sense of who we are today: that makes sense of the Good News of Christianity that God is love and we are not fated by our mistakes. Life is stronger than death. Care is stronger than hatred. We are all destined to be friends with one another and with God. Christian theology comes from a thoughtful conversation between the “I” who is a believer and the “we” who are believers. It is grounded in Christian tradition, the scriptures, and the experience of contemporary believers.
I am not a politician but a theologian. I have no interest in getting involved in party politics. One can be a Republican or a Democrat or belong to any or none of the smaller political party groups. In the current U.S. political situation, I respect all party loyalties. I respect the right of anyone to be “conservative” or “progressive.” I expect people to respect my political stance as well.
As a citizen of the United States and of the world, I do have some concerns about the current occupant of the White House. Yes, these are my personal opinions and I have no desire to impose them on anyone. Personally, I think the current occupant is an immoral, psychologically unstable, and incompetent leader. The U.S. political process will have to deal with what has already become a very real and critically dangerous situation.
Now to religion. A religion is an institutionally organized and highly structured theology. It has institutional and cultic leaders, set symbols and rituals, an official creed or statement of belief, a code of morality, sacred scriptures, and sacred places like shrines, synagogues, mosques, and churches.
When religion and politics get twisted together, one can expect sparks, short circuits, and explosions. The genius of the American political philosophy and governmental structure has been a strict separation of church and state. Good political wisdom. Good religious wisdom. As an American I don’t want a theocracy. I don’t, for instance, want an imam telling me what to do: establishing rules of life for me and telling me what I can or cannot do. That being said, I don’t want any rabbi or any bishop or any evangelical reformer establishing rules of life for me and telling me what I can or cannot do as a citizen. Religious leaders can and should critique government policies; but they shouldn’t become political operators. And certainly not high level functionaries of any political party. An established church or religion is the end of democracy, and undermines the common good.
It is a very dangerous situation, when a religion becomes the political engine that runs a country. Why? History teaches and current events demonstrate that highly politicized religion loses its proper religious identity. By becoming so intimately bound up in the political operations of society, it loses its ability to challenge the values of that society. It loses the always necessary prophetic and counter-cultural social critique function of a religion. Over time, it loses as well its ability to be of service to people. It loses its proper religious identity. Instead, it becomes an autocratic crowd-control mechanism. It ceases being the object of respect and admiration. It becomes the cold, controlling, and demanding object of idolatry. We see this happening in Erdogan’s Turkey. The Orthodox Church and Putin are doing it in Russia. Mr. Trump is clueless about what is going on.
By way of conclusion, I have no desire to get entangled in party politics. As a strong believer in Christ and as an historical theologian, however, I will speak out about and challenge any politician, political policy, or political movement that denigrates or destroys another person because of that person’s gender, sexual orientation, race, religious identity, or nationality. Being the Good Samaritan is not just pious platitude demanding polite lip service. It is the way of Christ. I will speak out as well, however, and I will protest any religious leader who becomes so entangled in politics that he or she ceases to be a prophetic witness to the message a spirit of Christ in contemporary society.
Lent is just around the corner and I am gathering my Christian thoughts……Warmest regards to all. If you have suggestions you can always write.
Dr. J. A. Dick — Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, Belgium. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
11 thoughts on “Politics and Theology”
As usual, Jack, your words illuminate. This election particularly caused each “practicioner” of religion to filter each candidate’s positions through the values espoused by our faith. It was shocking to me to see that many of my fellow Catholics drew a completely different conclusion as to the “best” choice for president based on the tenets of my faith as I understood them. More shocking was the recommendation from our pulpit as to whom I should vote for based on “correct” Catholic teaching. Still further complicating the issue was a discussion I had with a priest who confessed to having tension with another priest who was on the opposite side of the political divide. Sadly, I think, each person believes that Jesus is on his/her side. Richard Rohr might call it tribalism but, whatever the name, political intertwining with religious belief causes great confusion. This makes a good argument for the detachment of one’s thinking from the “rules” of religion and more toward the practice of spirituality. Or, in the words of the common but meaningful cliche, “What would Jesus do?”
(Why does my brain always hurt after I read your blog, Jack?!)
Your brain may hurt….but good friend, when I read your words my heart warms up! Thank you for being you! – Jack
I echo my very dear friend, Frank Skeltis’, words. Jack, your writings are a treasure for me, and your support of the “separation of church and state” lift my spirits beyond belief. It helps me to know that someone so learned, particularly in theology, feels as I do. I miss my Catholic Church, since leaving in November 2016, but I do not miss the majority of priests in our Diocese. I cannot listen to their words as I have lost all respect for them and see most of them as a tool of the Republican Party, and as the entrenchment of the Church’s anti-women theology. As usual, thank you, Jack.
Many thanks Patricia!
Thanks for commenting on this touchy subject, especially for the statement of our US “common good”. It’s a good starting point for discussion with folks with whom I don’t agree.
Than you Patrick for commenting!
Well said. If we can’t talk amongst ourselves about politics & religion at the table-well then, don’t invite me to dinner.
Your thoughts are so right on & resonate deeply in my heart & mind. Thank you. Please keep sharing.
Thanks Mary. I will try to do my best.
i believe that what you have written is not “good”–but inspiring–not merely in a God-sense, but in the sense that I hope it triggers the real discussion that our country needs to engage in. Faith, as Jesus implies throughout the synoptic Gospels is a matter of countering the efforts of people (often men) to impose conformity and control under the hypocritical guise of religion (whether Christianity, Jesus’s Judaism or some of today’s Islamic extremism); I consider your remarks a cautious and careful stop into an arena where the fight is not between politics and religion so much as between community and conscience, between the need for order and the demands of one’s inner convictions. Order can lead to Nazi Germany and inner convictions can lead to Dylan Roof and Timothy McVeigh. The real issue–and I laud you for it–is to start the discussion between faith and community–between the culture of tradition (whether the misshapen form it is has taken under Phariseeism of Jesus time or the fossilised form of today’s Roman Catholicism), and the culture of maturity, wisdom and conscience which Jesus taught, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.
Many very sincere thanks for your thoughtful and encouraging reflection.
Thank you so much for writing this.