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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

Politics and Divisions

Politics and Divisions

by The Rev. Thomas B. Woodward

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Salinas

August 15, 2004


Luke and the other gospel writers remembered some of what Jesus said and did. They sorted through what was most important and then laboriously wrote it in the scrolls they bought

for a pretty penny at the first century equivalent of Office Max. One of the things Luke remembered very clearly is what we read in the Gospel for today:

Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided. . . .father against son and son against father. . . “

To put that in a benign way: when the stakes are high – really high – and the issues are crucial (world defining), we often divide. For Jesus, towards the end, it came down to whether you would align yourself, give yourself over, completely, to the world of light or remain in the darkness. Will you risk your life in the kingdom of God, or get lost in one of the many kingdoms of this world? “He who is not with me,” he says, “. . . is against me.”

If the demands of religious faith were more like the ideals of a service club this would not be so. But the demands of religious faith are more ultimate. They have to do with how we understand ourselves, how we understand our community, our nation and the universe. Unfortunately, throughout history we have defined ourselves and defended ourselves over against other religions, other understandings of the world. . . .demonizing them in the process.

And that is as true now as it ever has been. We have defined what has come to be a confusing war in Iraq, not as national defense or as a war against a tyrant, but as a war between the forces of good and the forces of evil…as though the very honor of God were at stake. So there should be little surprise, that Jesus’ words ring true about our present:

We are so divided in this country – so terribly divided and we are so busy demonizing,

or being demonized by those on the other side. It’s no longer politics . . .it’s apocalypse. It is no longer religion as we have usually experienced it: it has become a war between the forces of good and the forces of evil. And it is terrible.

So, spiritually, what do we, as Episcopalians, have to offer to our families, our community, one another? I can think of three things:

our own experience with conflict, deep disagreement,

our understanding of human nature & human transformation,

and a way of talking with those with whom we disagree.

We have learned some important things in our life in the church. One of the most important things about the Episcopal Church has been our ability to hang together, even with deep differences. We are held together, not by social status, economic status or a particular understanding of one or more aspects of the Christian faith, but by two things: receiving communion together at a common altar rail and our desire to follow Jesus Christ as best we can.

So we can disagree about the virgin birth of Jesus, the precise meaning of the Resurrection, the morality of birth control, of abortion, of capital punishment, or the morality of participating in armed warfare.

I grew up in the Cathedral Parish in Topeka, Kansas – and the Dean of the Cathedral, John Day, who was much loved and respected, John Day was a pacifist, a thoroughgoing pacifist, all the way through WW2, as my father and so many others in the congregation enlisted in the army and fought for our country and returned to worship with a pastor they loved and respected – and who loved and respected them, as well. There are very few things I have learned in life that have been more important.

By and large, we have done well, living a life in the church with liberals and conservatives, gay and straight, traditionalists and those living on the edge – and not just living together and worshipping together, but doing so with love and respect.

So, first, we must find ways of mirroring to others, our ability to live together in love and respect for others, even as we disagree about important things. The second thing we have to offer has to do with our understanding of human nature and human transformation. Ground Level Basic is this: we need to remember, time after time, that attack ads are evil. They are evil in every way. Why? first, because they are almost always based on distortion or lies; second, because they tell us nothing about the vision of the one doing the attacking (except in a negative way); and third, as I’ve said so often, when we vote, we are voting for a world (for an approximation of the kingdom), not (and I know this sounds wrong) for moral cleanliness. So many of our greatest presidents have been morally flawed: Bill Clinton, John Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, even Thomas Jefferson.

Let me put it this way: if you want a sitting duck for an attack ad, take our patron saint, St. Paul. For moral character, he was the pits. He was the lead guy, hunting down and destroying Christians. And in the Old Testament? the two big shots, Moses and David? In their earlier years they were moral and spiritual disasters, poster boys for any unscrupulous ad agency out to profit from attack ads. Is character irrelevant? No. But a better question is: Can God work through this man, this woman to bring glory to his name and comfort, hope, health and healing to the people?

We may not need a goody-goody as President, Governor, city council member – but we better have people who care, who are open to the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit (whether they are religious or not). We are all sinners -- and, unless I’ve missed something, Jesus is not running for public office this year – and even if he were, he probably would not get a majority of votes cast, even by Christians.

So, let’s not use the substance of attack ads to advance our own candidate – it’s just a way one person has of lifting himself up by standing on someone else’s back. We are all sinners. Again, the question is `. . are we open to the transformation of the Holy Spirit, who acts beyond religious boundaries.

The third thing we have to contribute – is that we can learn to do in politics what our missionaries have learned to do with religion. I often return to the experience of Bishop Leslie Newbigen, who spent his life among Hindus and Moslems as a missionary. After years of frustration, he said he finally understood: he said, it is simply a matter of sitting down with a Muslim, a Hindu and saying, “I would like to hear your beautiful stories about God and then I would like to tell you my beautiful stories about God.”

So, “tell me what you like about George Bush’s world. Tell me what you like about John Kerry’s world. And then I would like to tell you what I like about my candidate’s world.” That is not as much fun as repeating the latest attack ad – or the latest barb from Jay Leno or John Stewart or David Letterman (save those for your friends). That is not as much fun as repeating the latest attack ad, but it is much more important and it is affirming our commonality, even as we disagree.

Are there times when it is more than sharing viewpoints, when it comes time for father and son, mother and daughter to part? Of course there are: there are things in our lives that are more important than employment, more important than our standing in the community, that have more to do with integrity and self-respect than being OK with everybody. These occasions may come to any one of us . . .once, twice, three times in our lifetimes or not at all. They come when to remain silent or to do nothing would seem to threaten the very kingdom to which we have pledged our lives. It may happen at work, when we or a co-worker is treated with such contempt or injustice that we have to confront the injustice, no matter what the personal cost. It may happen in your school, your church, your family – and it comes down to, in Luther’s words, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

I, myself, have been fortunate. I have faced four such occasions – and each time my church has come through for me, has stood for me – and my prayer is that we will be there,

with similar strength and caring for you. There have been times when I have felt guilty about not being clearer about what I have seen as the spiritual implications of something political, but then I have to trust your prayers and your insight -- and I know my job is that of assisting you. . .in your formation of a Christian conscience and not to impose my own partial understanding.

As a cohort of mine, Dan Martins, with whom I disagree about many, many important things while liking him and respecting him completely, wrote, “Among people of good faith, it is possible for gospel values to lead one to embrace either of the major parties (and probably most or all of the minor ones), and espouse liberal or conservative positions. The only option not available to us as Christians is to make our political decisions purely (or even substantially) on the basis of our own self-interest. The gospel values of truth, peace, justice, and love must lie at the root of a Christian's political action.”

Is the Kingdom of God at stake in this election? Yes, it is always at stake: not, we pray, in a final sense, but it is at stake. We pray for wisdom, for guidance, for the ability to listen and to discern – and the ability to be articulate about the vision to which God is calling us and the will to make it real. Thy Kingdom come, O Lord, thy will be done.

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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