Us and Them: Should Christians Be Involved in Politics?
Today we’re diving in to a somewhat controversial question. Should Christians – should churches – should pastors – should we be involved in politics? When we think about “politics,” many of us jump right to relentless election cycles and negative campaigns and name-calling and corruption, and a gut response is: Let’s get as far away from that as possible! Of course we shouldn’t get mixed up in politics! I think, though, for us to answer our question – should we be involved in politics? – we have to start by understanding what politics is, or at least what it is meant to be. The word “politics” has many connotations today, but its origin is more simple and straightforward. It comes from the Greek root word polis, which means “city.” Politics simply meant “the affairs of the city.” In other words, politics meant, means things that are related to the concerns of the places where people live.
Our scripture passage today comes from a time when the Israelites were living in exile in Babylon. Israel had gone through a long period of being conquered by foreign nations and being occupied by foreign rule, and eventually, even sent out from their homeland to live in other nations. Not all of Jerusalem was sent to live in exile, but the leaders – the royal family, and many of the priests and the prophets, even the artisans – all the people responsible for essentially “running the nation” – they were all exiled to Babylon. Jeremiah, a prophet, wasn’t in Israel either. He was living and writing from Egypt. He too was far from home, and had deep insight into what his people were going through.
Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiled leaders in Babylon. He says that God has this message for them, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. [Get married] and have [children]. Watch your children get married and have children. Continue to grow your family, your people. Multiply there, and don’t decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” I can only imagine that the people found Jeremiah’s words shocking: Seek the welfare of Babylon? Seek the welfare of the nation that had essentially captured and imprisoned them far from home? But Jeremiah urges the people to live, really live, really thrive, even in Babylon, and to care for even what happens to Babylon.
“Seek the welfare of the city.” In the Hebrew text, the word we read as “welfare” is the word “shalom.” If this word is familiar to you, you might know it is often translated as “peace.” But unfortunately, we sometimes use the word “peace” as a throwaway. It loses some of its power. Doug Priest writes, “The meaning of shalom goes farther. It means wholeness and health. Shalom refers to the internal peace we have in our soul, spirit, and body. But shalom is even more than that. It applies to our relationships at work and to our relationship with nature and creation. As one author wrote, ‘To have shalom is to be whole and healthy in yourself and in all that challenges you, be it people, be it the issues of your world, your environment, your society, or be it the problems which are at hand, the problems which await you.’” (1)
God tells them that after seventy years’ time, Israel will be able to return home. Of course, some of the people Jeremiah is writing to won’t even live to see that day. But their children and grandchildren will. God urges them to think about the future, about the world they want their descendants to have. God says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you … plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” When the people call on God, pray to God, God will hear. When they search for God, they will find God, if they seek with their whole hearts. “I will let you find me.” God says. And I will gather you back together, and restore you, and bring you back home. If they seek the shalom of the city – even in Babylon – they will find God, find that future and hope God promises.
In the broadest, purest sense, to be political is to be deeply concerned with the affairs of the places where people live. And I find in Jeremiah’s writing, in God’s words, a call to be deeply invested in working for shalom – the wholeness and health and thriving of the places where people live. God calls us to be invested in building up not just our own lives, but the whole community, building for the generations to come. God promises us a future, with hope – when we make sure it is God’s vision for shalom that we’re pursuing. I think pursuing God’s future for the world is political. We’re choosing and advocating for God’s principles to guide and shape our world over many sets of alternative principles!
I think our role as people of faith is to work on God’s behalf for true shalom. Our United Methodist heritage includes a long history people working for change in their world and their communities, grounded in and driven by their faith. Today, our United Methodist Book of Discipline – our book of rules that shape our order and structure – includes Social Principles, our statement of belief on almost any social issue you can think of, from military service to the death penalty to climate change to gun control. That doesn’t mean that all United Methodists think the same things. The point is: we have a historic commitment to letting our faith guide our action in the world. In the introduction and preamble to our Social Principles, we read:
“[We believe] God's love for the world is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty. We cannot just be observers. So we care enough about people's lives to risk interpreting God's love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex. The church helps us think and act out a faith perspective … We know ourselves to be responsible to God for social and political life.” (2)
We don’t just have to think about these questions of faith and politics in the abstract. We happen to have several local politicians who are active in our community of faith. They were willing to let me ask them some questions, and either via email or in person, shared their responses with me. I was able to speak with Ron McDougall, our mayor, Charles Newvine, deputy mayor, and Travis Dann, town justice. Dede Scozzafava, who has a long history in state politics, has been down south, or we would have had her input as well. I’m so thankful to all of them for being willing to answer my questions. Here’s a bit of what I learned.
I asked each of them how they got involved in politics. Travis wrote, “I grew up in a family of service. My earliest memories are of my Dad as a volunteer fireman and fire chief … I never realized how ingrained in me that service had become until long after I had become a Trooper. Service to others was simply what everyone around me did.” Charles, too, has roots in his family that led him to public service. He said, “I became involved in politics 8 years ago. I started going to Village board meetings … just to listen and learn what was going on in my community ... Working with the public at Newvine's Auto Parts allows me to have "my thumb on the pulse" of my constituents. Which … allows me to hear both sides of the story and it also allows me the opportunity to see opposite ends of the public. People that are very well off and have lavish things as well as others who can't afford necessary parts to keep their vehicle safe and severely struggle to get by … I wanted to represent all people. People from all walks of life. I wanted to get involved because I care about the future of my children and the future of everyone's children in Gouverneur.” As I sat and talked with Ron, I learned that he’s been involved in politics for most of his adult life. In the 70s, he was a union leader. A decade later, he was the President of the Labor Council in Northern New York. He was a delegate for the DNC. Once he was retired, certain folks, including his wife, encouraged him to get involved in local politics. He became a village trustee, then deputy mayor, then mayor. His early experience as a union leader really shaped and prepared him for the positions he would later hold.
I asked: Should Christians be involved in politics? Ron thought about the time of Jesus – how even the story of Jesus’ birth has political overtones. In Luke’s gospel, we read that Jesus ends up born in Bethlehem because of the registration and tax program of the Roman Empire. Jesus was a champion of those on the fringes of society, and Ron sees a parallel in the way politics can work to seek fairness for all people. Travis asks, “If Christians are NOT involved in politics, who will fill those roles?” He writes, “Christians have been made out to be outside of popular, mainstream culture while our love of Jesus is labelled as outdated … We must stand up and be proud to be Christians, not be pushed into oblivion!” Charles writes, “All people should be involved in politics. To me that is the essence of what makes the world great. The opportunity to make life better for everyone ... I want all people to get involved … I wish people would see that the reason to be involved in politics is make the community a better place.”
I asked each of them how their faith shapes their work and supports what they do, even as we acknowledge our understanding of the separation of church and state. Ron spoke about how his prayer life undergirds his work in the community, and he spoke about the active roles in their faith communities that many of our local politicians have. He talked about our origins of faith as a nation, and how people came to this land seeking the freedom to practice their faith as they desired. We often forget that, he said. Travis shared, “I returned to my faith well after I had accepted my life of service. As I have grown in my faith, it has helped me grow in my service and they feed each other.” He cited James’ words about faith being shown in our good works as “particularly poignant” for him. “They really do go together!” he said. “I have been a better Trooper and Legislator as my faith grew and my faith grew as I became better at my jobs.” Charles admitted that this is a “hard question. The foundations of my faith came from my parents. I strive to be like them … I am most recently questioning my faith and how I can faithfully, undoubtedly make Jesus Christ a part of everything I do. It is a hard concept for me to grasp … I struggle with my faith even more than I struggle with politics and believe me, politics are a struggle … Am I washing [peoples’] feet? Is my heart as true to theirs as theirs is to mine? Am I asking for their hand? Am I showing compassion as Jesus did while not expecting anything in return? My work in politics is a way to reach people on a different level in hopes to fulfill my quest in faith. It fills my heart to see people come to me for advice. It makes me proud to think that people trust me enough to allow me the opportunity to speak on their behalf.” Charles gets bonus points for quoting my sermons, but I also appreciate his reflections on the struggle that we all have to daily live out the principles of our faith.
I asked Ron, Travis and Charles about the current divisions in our nation, and asked them to share examples of working across “dividing lines” in local politics. Fortunately, they affirmed my impression that in our local community, long-lasting personal relationships are more important than political affiliations. Ron talked about recommending a Republican to fill a certain vacant position, even though he is a Democrat. Some of his colleagues were surprised, and said, “Are you sure?” But Ron said: I know him. I know that he’ll do the job to the best of his ability. I know that he’s the most qualified.” Charles wrote, “The common ground we find in our small community is for the greater good. It is amazing to see. The new community center, Riverview Park, Gouverneur Hospital, infrastructure upgrades and the Chamber of Commerce are all great examples of people working together across party lines to make this community even better than it already is.” Travis shared, “In local politics, everyone knows everyone personally. It is far easier to "bash" someone you don't know in a personal way than to do the same to someone you sit across the aisle [from] at church.”
I asked them about the challenges they see our area facing, and their hope and vision for our future. All three shared similar challenges with which most of us could identify. Travis said, “[In] order for our kids to be "successful" we, most often, must encourage them to go away. We don't have the number of productive CAREERS here that we used to have … This feeds into the national political divide and adds to a feeling of hopelessness. Feelings of hopelessness lead into the drug issues that plague our community.” Ron talked about the standard of living and the need for more affordable housing options. Charles identified poverty, unemployment, and stagnant business growth. But all three also laid out a vision for a future with hope. Charles wrote that he sets his eyes on a Gouverneur as a place for his children and the children of the community to have a strong and vibrant future. “After all,” he said, “I am just borrowing time” from them. Ron says that he has to have faith when he imagines a future for Gouverneur. You have to see the glass as half-full, have to see the potential and possibility, he says. If you can’t see what might be, the potential, he said, politics is the wrong business for you, and you aren’t practicing your faith! Travis wrote, “Our men's group often agreed that we were on the edge of a spiritual revival here. I still believe that is happening!”
God calls us to seek after the welfare, the shalom, the wholeness of the place where we live – whether where we are is just where we want to be, or whether where we are is far from what we’d call home. Either way, God’s people are meant to seek and to cultivate shalom, a deep peace that comes from reconciliation and right relationship with God and one another. Maybe that’s not what we think of when we think of “politics” today. But I can’t think of anything that more embodies being concerned with the “affairs of the city” than working together for true shalom. Should Christians be political? I’ll echo Travis’s words. If not Christians, then who is it that we want to fill these roles? So let us seek after the welfare, the shalom, of our world, our nation, and our community right here. For God has plans for us, plans for a future with hope. And when we seek God with all our hearts, I believe we will find the shalom we seek. Amen.
(1) Priest, Doug. “Seek the Shalom of the City,” http://newurbanworld.org/seek-the-shalom-of-the-city/. Priest’s quote is unattributed.
(2) Excerpts from the Book of Discipline 2016 of The United Methodist Church, introduction/preamble to the Social Principles, and the introduction to the section on The Political Community.