Give us a King! Lectionary reflections on Proper 5, Year B (June 10, 2012)

This week’s readings.

I’m not sure what divine irony (or is it the Holy Spirit?) put the Wisconsin Recall election during the week when we will read the story of Israel’s demanding that God give them a king. Our reading from the Hebrew Bible comes from I Samuel 8 and it depicts the deep ambivalence over monarchy that is at the heart of the biblical text.

On the one hand, the problems with direct divine rulership or prophetic leadership are clear. The book of Judges ends with an ominous verse: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Judges depicts a descending cycle of anarchy as the tribes of Israel fail to follow God. Samuel picks up the story. While he is portrayed as a gifted prophet, priest, military leader, and judge, his sons (just as Eli’s sons before him) do not follow in his footsteps. As Samuel ages, problems again come to the fore.

The people’s response is to demand a king, like the nations around them. Ultimately, there will be a ruler and a dynasty that is considered to have divine legitimacy and divine favor (the Davidic monarchy). Later generations will look back on David and Solomon as great and wise rulers, and their reigns as a golden age but at the same time, there will arise in conjunction with the monarchy, the institution of Hebrew prophecy that will call kings and people to justice and to obedience to Torah.

That ambivalence is present in this week’s reading. The demand for kingship is a rejection of divine kingship. Of equal importance are the implications for society of a monarchy:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; [and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.] He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

One could draw all sorts of lessons from this text for our political situation–both on the state and the national level. What strikes me, however, is the desire for someone to provide easy answers, to solve deep and lasting problems with a sword or legislation. The problems for Israel were deeper than the leadership at the top. Indeed, one could argue that the concluding verse from Judges, is not so much an indictment of political leadership as it is a comment on society as a whole: “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” In other words, it may be that it was the people’s refusal to follow Torah that was at the heart of the matter.

Will a change in leadership on either the state or national level solve the deep problems that plague our society? Will change (or staying the course, for that matter) lead to greater justice and equity? Are we like the Israelites, who demanded a simple solution to complex problems?


A Season of Civility

The Wisconsin Council of Churches has issued this statement:

Wisconsin Council of Churches Calls For a
Season of Civility

Thirty six religious leaders from throughout Wisconsin called upon our state to enter into a “Season of Civility” amidst the partisan rancor of the current recall campaigns and the anticipated divisiveness of the fall election cycle.
Read the statement here
The “Call for a Season of Civility” statement draws a parallel between the religious values embodied in “the Golden Rule,” to treat others as we would like to be treated, with the idea of democracy, which is based on regard for the value of each and every individual.
In the statement, our religious leaders commit to model and support respectful and honest conversations on public issues within our congregations, assemblies and forums.
We also call upon candidates to adhere to high standards of civility, integrity and truthfulness in their advertising, including those of “third parties.” We invite all of our citizens to be critical consumers of media and advertising.

We now invite pastors and other local religious leaders to sign the “Call To a Season of Civility” statement.  If you would like to add your name to the list of signatories, send an email with complete contact information to  We will post the list to our web site with weekly updates as signatures are added.

General Convention Update–Blogging the Blue Book

Not me, Scott Gunn. He’s writing a series of posts on the various reports and resolutions to be discussed at General Convention. They are all worth reading–thoughtful and challenging–and often addressing larger issues facing the church.

For example, he raises questions about the political resolutions proposed by various bodies here. Here’s the principle he proposes:

Let us tell the world what we are going to do about political problems, rather than telling the world what they should do about political problems.

So rather than tell corporations to mind the environment, let’s pledge to have environmentally sustainable congregations. Let’s stop killing so many trees (ahem, General Convention legislative binder. *cough*). Rather than tell President Obama to do this or that about various Middle Eastern crises, let’s divest or invest or travel or boycott or something. Let’s stop calling for an end to the boycott of Cuba and instead set up travel programs to take people there. You get the idea.

And, for the love of God, let’s stop telling other governments what to do. What possible business do we have telling the government of North Korea what to do? How are 800 deputies and 200 bishops going to monitor the use of drones in warfare? Why should we wade into the complexities of the US tax code (remember, we are an international church!)?

And remember, one of the few budget items to be increased for the the next triennium is the Governmental Affairs office, while other programs like formation were gutted.

Frederick Schmidt also ponders the relationship between the church and the political realm in “Winning the White House and losing our souls.” Some of what he says is quite pertinent to Scott’s analysis of the place of political resolutions at General Convention:

Three, political speech and theological speech are not one in the same. Yes, theology has collective and corporate implications and, therefore, political implications. But the church is called upon to think about those issues from a fundamentally different point of view. Methodists are fond of talking about the resources of Christian theology as lying in Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. That list is inadvertently read as a list of two resources unique to the church (Scripture and tradition), alongside two resources shared in common with everyone else (what goes on inside our heads and what goes on in our lives). But when Christians talk about reason, we are talking about reasoning with the church, and when we talk about experience, we are talking about the experience of the church. When we use political language as if it were theological language, or when we use theology as if were a surrogate for politics, we fail to live and think as Christians were meant to live and think.

Was Jesus apolitical? Hardly.

Andrew Sullivan’s essay “Christianity in Crisis” has received considerable attention. I regularly read his blog. I find it highly intelligent, thought-provoking, and offering links to fascinating material I would otherwise not encounter. Sullivan is gay, libertarian, Roman Catholic. He writes:

This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever. It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere—from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.Sullivan wants to extricate Christianity from the “christianists” as he calls them, the right-wing Christians who use their religion politically. He argues that Jesus was profoundly non-political and appeals to Jefferson’s idea of a Jesus who taught practical doctrines.

Others have offered insightful criticism, Kyle Cupp, for one, here and here.

I think the deeper problem with Sullivan’s argument lies in a series of category mistakes. Was there such a thing as “politics” distinct from religion in the Roman Empire? Not when the Emperor in some sense was responsible for assuring the performances of the rituals of Roman public religion. Not when the emperor in the East assumed titles like “Divine” or “Savior.” Not when the cross itself was an instrument of political power.

One of the problems for contemporary people is realizing that our categories of “religion” and “politics,” even the “secular” which Sullivan uses to describe St. Francis before his conversion, are the products of historical and cultural developments, that the boundaries between them, however contested they are in contemporary culture, exist in our minds. It’s not clear that such boundaries existed in the medieval or ancient world, that a term like “secular” would have made sense to St. Francis.

And of course, to assert that Jesus was “apolitical” is itself a political statement, when it is challenging the right of others to use Jesus or Christianity for political ends.

David Sessions points out that Sullivan is interpreting Jesus along the lines of liberal individualism (not surprising then that he begins with Jefferson’s Bible):

Andrew describes Jesus’ ideas as “truly radical,” for example, “love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth.” His project is to convince us that these “radical” ideas are also “apolitical,” that when salvaged from the tangle of theological and political movements that have distorted them, they are something pure, spiritual and otherworldly. Like a good liberal individualist, he reads all of these virtues as a kind of private interior experience, something I’m not sure Jesus ever intended them to mean.

It reminds me of two comments I received after a recent sermon. One person congratulated me for not preaching about political topics. Another person, in response to the very same sermon, congratulated me for taking a political stance. Apparently, I confused everybody.

We Americans have trouble with politics and religion.

Take up your cross–A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

March 4, 2012

The news recently has been full of stories about the intersection of religion and politics. There’s been all the talk about Mitt Romney and debate whether a Latter Day Saint can be president. There’s been Rick Santorum and his criticism of JFK’s famous speech. We’ve heard the Roman Catholic bishops complaining about the implications of healthcare reform for their faith, and their claims that their religious freedom is being violated. We thought the presidential election was going to be about the economy, and it turns out after all, that it’s going to be another front in the culture wars. Continue reading

The Virgin on a Dollar Bill: The Future of the Religious Right?

A great deal has been written about the religious right’s role in the current GOP presidential campaign but recent events have left experts scrambling to make sense of it all. There’s the issue of Romney’s membership in the Latter Day Saints; the Catholicism of Gingrich and Santorum, and now, whether Gingrich’s marital history will make it difficult for Evangelicals to vote for him (or if not all Evangelicals, then Evangelical women). There is even the story last week about the religious right leadership meeting in Texas to decide who they should support (and cries of vote-rigging from the Gingrich camp afterwards).

Reflecting on this weird mix, Michael Kazin posits “The End of the Christian Right.” His argument is this: 1) They’ve lost the culture wars–support for gay marriage now tops 50%; 2) They lack the leadership of earlier generations (there’s no Jerry Falwell among the current crop); 3) most importantly, they are losing the demographic battle. Of course, he makes this argument while acknowledging the continuing potency of conservative Christians in the Republican primary fights.

Kazin has received some pushback. Ed Kilgore disagrees.

But if they haven’t been able to pull their muscle behind a single candidate, that’s not a sign that they are on the wane—it’s a sign that, as far as the Republican Party is concerned, they have already won.

Look at the potential nominees: Unlike 2008, no candidate in the field is pro-choice by any definition. Only Ron Paul seems reluctant to enact a national ban on same-sex marriage. Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum. and Herman Cain have been vocal in fanning the flames of Islamophobia; again, only Paul has bothered to dissent to any significant degree.

I’ve got no particular insight on this matter. But an image I came across on a Mother Jones blogpost strikes me as very interesting:

We may yet see new realignments, with closer cooperation among conservative Evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics. It’s already taking place, of course. That evangelicals might have endorsed Santorum would have been unthinkable a generation ago (and is probably as difficult for many to swallow as voting for a Mormon). But what battles in the culture wars would an army led by the Roman Catholic bishops and supported by the American Family Association and the National Association for Evangelicals win?