Tuesday, 30 October 2012 00:00

"Politics", October 28, 2012

Romans 13:1-14
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 28, 2012
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Ten years ago this week, I was with Soulforce in Lynchburg, Virginia to celebrate the first pride festival in Lynchburg history.  We vigiled in front of Thomas Road Baptist Church and offered a distinctly different message than its pastor Jerry Falwell.  That’s where I got the news that Paul Wellstone and eight other members of his family and staff had been killed.  Less than a week later, a memorial service was held at Williams arena for all of the people who died in that crash.  Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church threatened to protest the service with his awful signs and condemnations.  I joined several other UBCers outside, waiting to be a human shield from the hate-speech.  Phelps didn’t show up, but some local group thought it would be a good time to come with those awful posters of supposedly aborted fetuses.

We UBCers parked ourselves next to the green Wellstone school bus and watched the proceedings on monitors from the overflow crown inside.  At one point, a tall distinguished looking man walked up and reporters converged around him. I got close enough to hear Jesse Jackson say, “Today, Paul Wellstone was welcomed in to heaven by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.”  Imagine the theological implications of that.  A Baptist Preacher saying that a Jew was welcomed to heaven by another Baptist and a Hindu. He then walked up to me, shook my hand and said, “Hello Friend.”  Jan Curtis said, “Do you know him?”  I said no, but I was perplexed by his shaking my hand and not anyone else’s.   To whom do we want to be known of as a friend?  Do our lawn signs or our rainbow flags make us the right kind of friends?

In this politically charged season, people of faith are asked to make important decisions.  They are political decisions and they are a reflection of our spiritual beliefs, our walk as people of faith, our embracing of a world-view reflective of the message of Jesus. And yet, we as a congregation with non-profit status will not tell you who to vote for.  That is a personal decision in the privacy of a voting booth.  But it is not a secular decision, not completely.  It is informed by your religious beliefs, your family beliefs and your economic and social place in this world of ours.  So ask yourself these questions as you enter that voting booth:


Which persons and which positions will make the world better place for me, for those I love and for the people I don’t know?

Do their positions reflect my values?

Even if you do not agree with a candidate on all topics, which topics are most important?

Are you willing to side with a candidate who has a position you don’t like because another position is important that he or she does support?

Does one position or one characteristic trump all others?  
Is there a litmus test, either conscious or unconscious going on?  

Does the makeup of the Supreme Court matter to you? The next president and senate will probably choose and confirm 2 Supreme Court justices. All of these questions are important to consider.

Paul Wellstone once said, “I don’t think that politics has anything to do with left, right, or center.  It has to do with trying to do right by people.”

So the question is, how do we do right by people?

How do we do it spiritually, how do we do it politically?

What stands in our way?

If we prefer our church without politics, do we prefer a risen Christ without the persecution and crucifixion that preceded it?  Do we want just the glory and not the gory?

So it is in this context that we engage this morning’s scripture reading.

Romans 13:1-7 is conveniently left out of the common lectionary.  But it’s a central text of the popular political lectionary of those in imperial power.

Romans 13 has been used especially by people whose political party is in power to call criticism sinful.  Paul said, “Let every person be subject to governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.” (13:1-2) People conveniently ignore this dictum when their candidate loses.  This scripture has been used to support all kinds of authoritarian dictators, bad and racists cops and even unjust laws.  Was Paul talking universally, or for a particular context? Remember, governing authorities back then were not elected.  They were appointed with or without the approval of the governed.  That’s a big difference from today.

What is the Christian stance toward an elected official who does something worth resisting?  In the worst parts of the Reagan administration’s shenanigans in Central America, activists like me were told it was unchristian to oppose the administration’s policies.  United Theological Seminary professor Neil Elliot, in his book “Liberating Paul” says: “…this single scrap of scripture, Romans 13:1-7, diverts our attention and thus shields a massive war-making economy—the defense industries, the banking, the diversion of funds from domestic programs, the diplomatic subterfuge, all the mechanisms of what Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan has called “the interlocking directorate of death”--from moral analysis and critique.  Powerful political and economic interests are served, to murderous effect, whenever Romans 13 causes Christian populations to acquiesce in well-mannered and pious docility.  Where the social machinery of war is concerned, the canonical Paul is simply good for business.” (pp.19,20).

Several scholars have pointed out that Romans 13:1-7 seems out of character to a Paul who calls for us in the 12th chapter to not be conformed to this world but transformed by the renewing of our minds.  It seems contrary to a Paul who urges us to pay attention to God’s justice which is often antithetical to the world’s justice.  It certainly goes against Jesus’ suspicion of the reigning leaders.  Jesus always pointed toward the reign of God, not the reign of monarchs and crucifixion-supporting governors. Some have gone on to argue that it must be a textual interpolation, made by someone who wanted obedience and wanted it sanctioned by Paul.

When the poor rise, up, they often take the brunt of the blame for their poverty. Paul may be telling persecuted Christians to keep their heads down and not make a fuss.  This “government is from God” idea could be a rhetorical device meant to protect the persecuted from further cruelty.

But it is in our scripture and it is used. The question for us comes in how we use it.

Good Christians who knew their Romans 13:1-7 were hard pressed to officially speak out against Nazi Germany or the imperialist policies of the United States over the years.  This was especially compromised when economic interests were being served.  Keeping repressive regimes alive and well in Central and South America helped our dessert economies—it kept us with cheap coffee sugar and fruit, no matter how much banned fertilizer went into the crop or the torturous regimes that propped up the economies with bloody death squads.  Our appetite for cheap oil has resulted in a deadly collusion with sultans and shahs throughout the Middle East.

That’s where the end of chapter 13 comes in to play.  And I think that is the key.  Paul asks the people, given the rulers we have, “What time is it?”

What time is it?  The scripture says that we know what time it is.  Our hymn that we just sang says…

Once to every one and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

What time is it? The calendar would say it’s the moment to decide. What time is it?
Is it time to just sit back and take it while corporate controlled media tell us who is going to win?  Is it time to just sit back and wait for government to make good on its promises?  James Cone said that justice never is voluntarily given by the privileged.  It must be demanded by the oppressed.  Is it time to wait for the rich to give it to the poor?  Or is it time to rise up?

Is it time to rest on the illusion that all laws are meant for good?  Or is it time for us to maintain the constitution as a document to protect rights, not take them away.  
Is it time to think that women’s rights are always protected?  Or is there a time when we need to rise up, men and women, to protect a woman’s right to health care and natal care?

Is it time to say, you know, I’m too busy to vote, and besides, it makes no difference anyway?  Or is it time to stand up and be counted? Is it time to use our rights to vote while we still have them?

Is it time to complain about the sorry lot of our world?  Or is it time to put our energy where our mouths are and get out to vote?

What time is it?

Verses 8-14 call us to be better.  What time is it?  It’s time to love our neighbors as ourselves.

What time is it?  It’s time, as Paul says, to eschew darkness and embrace light.  We are to go away from night into day.  We are to forego drunkenness and embrace sobriety.  All of these transformations bring good news.

Paul Wellstone said, “A politics that is not sensitive to the concerns and circumstances of people’s lives; a politics that does not speak to include people is an intellectually arrogant politics that deserves to fail.”

I got the opportunity to speak about the marriage amendment at Bethel University on Thursday evening.  I was honored to share the stage with another Baptist Minister as a Jewish Rabbi. The large audience was civil and respectful.  On stage, we each made our case. It denigrated into a game of Biblical jujitsu at one point. But we got back to speaking about the issue at hand.  Can two people who love each other and want to commit themselves to a life of devotion, fidelity and loyalty actually be a threat to society?

Our opponent said that love between two people of the same gender was not a godly love.  It was a love of companionship, but it could not be a love from God.  How do you argue with this kind of logic? It’s such a different world-view. Afterwards, members of the Bethel Community came up to us and thanked us for our strong stance for love.  They also apologized on behalf of the Bethel Community for what they saw as spiritual abuse.  I told them that I was all right.  My skin has thickened over the years.  But I was concerned for them.  They seemed to have taken a lot if it from time to time.  I encouraged them to hold each other close and support one another.  To live as Christ would have us live.  It’s hard to love your enemies when they use violence and call it love or worse, Gospel truth.

Politics is not something to be taken lightly. Politics affects people.  Politics is designed to help people live into who they are called to be.  It can liberate and it can hurt.

We need to be on the side of the politics of Jesus. Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.  Advocate for the outcast. Stand alongside the poor.

Cornel West said, "To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely - to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away."

We all know what time it is.  It’s October 27th around 11am.  Mid-terms are in our rear-view mirrors.  It’s nine days before the election.  It’s also time to imagine what God would have us do in this day and age.  Paul ends the 13th chapter with these words:  You know what time it is.  It is the moment for you to wake from sleep.  The night is gone, the day is near.  Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put in the armor of light.  Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling or drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling or jealousy.

“Be ye not conformed to this world,” says Paul in Romans 12:2, “but transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God.”  And in so doing, may you know your place in the world and make the choices we all need to make.  To the glory of God and the betterment of the world for us, our neighbors and even our enemies.

Then we can say that we have done right by God.  That our politics is in line with God’s politics.  And God will look down and say it is very good.
What time is it?  What will you do with your time?

Remember the words of the hymn-writer:

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is strong.
Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown
Standeth truth amidst the shadow keeping watch above God’s own.