James 4:1-10

When I was installed as Minister here, the president of our student government association participated in my service of installation. He confessed that he was uneasy being close to so many preachers.

“John,” I said to him, “Haven’t you been reading the papers? Don’t you know what politicians and preachers have been doing lately? You must be the only politician in America who isn’t trying to get close to a preacher. Do you know what I could do for your political future?”
Alas, part of me feels like John — except from the other side of the fence. Here I am, with the public officials of our state arrayed before me, and what am I to say? Am I to do what the Bible so often does to politicians, namely, to chide and judge you, or to do what many preachers have been doing lately, to bless and affirm you?
Part of my problem is that I am uneasy about recent developments in religion and politics. When every other preacher is giving advice to politicians (and what preacher wouldn’t give his or her right arm to have a captive audience of prominent politicians seated before him this morning?), I have my hands full trying to preach to the church.
In his book, Righteous Empire, Martin Marty claimed that the American Protestant church could be divided into two groups — Public Protestants and Private Protestants. Public Protestants were those who felt a responsibility to vote, lobby, pressure, march and change this society for the better. In Public Protestants’ minds, the church must “go public” with its program and embody it through legislation.
On the other side were Private Protestants who felt that the church was mostly a matter of spiritual concerns, personal development, and private morality. Economics, politics, and social injustice? Individual concerns, said Private Protestants. Outside the jurisdiction of the church as a whole. After the last couple of elections, many are convinced that Marty’s neat distinction has collapsed.
More Christians are “going public” with their moral agenda and baptizing the political process in order to transform social arrangements. The man who once left my congregation because he didn’t care for a preacher who “mixed politics with religion” rather than “saving souls,” is today a minority on the right or the left.
First came liberal Christians of the 60s, organizing for civil rights or peace, then, somewhat to liberals’ surprise, conservative Christians found that two could play at this game. Into the political arena entered the Moral Majority of the 80s, fighting for prayer in schools and against abortion.
“Foul” cried liberal Christians. “What are they doing here?” Yet Mr. Falwell and his New Right were only doing what the Old Left did so well before them — pushing a political program upon the body politic in the name of Jesus.
Now we have two competing views of a just society both claiming to be “Christian.” I can understand a politician’s dismay in wondering just what is the Christian political program. Though Christian liberals and Christian conservatives have their differences, they agree: Christians ought to engage in politics to form a more just society — as each defines justice.
Yet in the church’s attempt, right or left, to involve the church in politics to form a better society, we have forgotten the church’s more profound political task, which is to be a better society. I’m not bothered that Christians are in politics. My problem is that Christians are not in politics on our own terms, from the peculiar standpoint of people who are trying to follow Jesus Christ.
We Americans are in a predicament which calls for more than minor tinkering with our political machinery. Plato said the function of politics is to help people to be good. Politics forms society around values and visions which make us better people than we could be without that society. Public virtues such as kindness, mutual concern, the common good are fostered through politics.
As George Will says, “Statecraft is soulcraft.” People are formed by their social arrangements, so we best take care how we order our societies. Society is rightly judged by the sort of people it produces.
Yet even as I say this, a pall settles over this congregation. We know that, in this matter of public virtue, our own society has failed. We have produced a society renowned for productivity — and consumption; a society which has given an unprecedented measure of freedom to its citizens. And yet, is our success our undoing?
We have a legal system and a social structure based upon the assumption that politics concerns the just distribution of desires — irrespective of the content of those desires. Our founders called it, “the pursuit of happiness.” Whatever they had in mind, our “happiness” is the two cars in every garage, VCR, recreational vehicle, place at the lake.
Ironically, our “pursuit of happiness” sows the seeds of unhappiness — depression because my pursuit is little more than a series of inviduous comparisons between my own acquisitions and those of the Jones’ next door; anxiety because my fellow citizens are but fellow competitors in our drive for “the good life.” Envy gnaws away at our happiness.
We have formed a government on the proposition that a social order can be based on self-interest. That’s what our system of checks and balances and individual “rights” is, isn’t it? Institutionalized self-interest. I am given maximum space aggressively to pursue what I want — as long as I don’t bump into you while you are getting yours. The nine-to-five job, monthly house payments, two-career marriage, over-programmed kids, the dog-eat-dog contest for grades at the university, this is our “freedom.”
Yet even as we’re getting our freedom, our lives feel hemmed in by a vast governmental bureaucracy. We complain about the bureaucrats, but having nothing to unite us but balanced self-interest, we need a strong, many-tentacled bureaucracy to keep the thing from collapsing. “Democracy” becomes an aggregate of self-interested individuals presided over by a valueless, faceless bureaucracy. We complain about “the welfare state,” but we need it. Lacking a bond other than common pursuit of individual desires, who will care for the poor, the old, the sick, or the young if the state doesn’t do it?
Government helps us get what we want and keep it safe from the demands of others. We say we want to strengthen the family and to let free enterprise work but it’s hard to have it both ways since it was the almighty green that led Mama and Daddy to abandon the family in the first place. As Duke’s Stanley Hauerwas has said, we have finally succeeded in making what was considered a vice (namely, selfishness) into a virtue.
A society founded on the assumption that people are selfish becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you treat people as nothing but self-interested consumers, they won’t disappoint you. Our culture is but a supermarket of desires. I’ve got “freedom of the individual,” but now what do I do with my freedom? Get a bigger piece of the pie? Has anybody asked about the value of the pie?
I go to the university, get a degree and one day, with my profession, I might win the rat race — but I’ll still be a rat. We fight for “rights,” yet rights mean little more than the right to be self-seeking.
No wonder we Americans look at one another as strangers, competing caucuses, armed with screwdrivers and magnums, enemies hunched on a dark subway car hurtling … where? We get freedom but also loneliness (now blessed as “autonomy” or “liberation”). The more free we become, the more we realize our limits, the more desperately we long for community.
I don’t think we have come to terms with the seriousness of the moral challenge facing us. Christians assume that our society is basically on the right track and needs a minor legislative tuneup to keep on course. We need a major overhaul to get us back on course.
During the last election, we debated the proper place of religion in the public order. Liberals, who once argued that Christians must go public with their moral values, were arguing that issues like abortion were “a personal issue, a matter of individual conscience.” Because such issues require a moral consensus that our nation doesn’t have anymore, better not discuss them as moral issues. Make them private, personal issues of “freedom” or “rights.”
Conservatives, who once limited a Christian’s political role to individual witness, now argued for more social legislation, more senators on our side, more laws. It was all very odd.
Some groups, such as Norman Lear’s “People for the American Way,” began saying that, while it was OK for Christians to have political opinions, they must not confuse religious opinions with political opinions. Abortion, prayer in school, gay rights? Political matters, many liberals said, not religious ones.
The Constitution gives “religious freedom” to churches — if churches don’t challenge the political system. The state has its world, the churches have theirs. Keep them distinct and things work out.
Yet I am suggesting that the American predicament requires solutions which can only be described as religious, moral, spiritual. We don’t need more rights; we need something meaningful to do with our rights. We have “freedom of choice” for a people whose choices have no meaning beyond their own self-interest, and the “right to life” for people who have no goal that makes life worth living. We long for justice but justice requires just people with some vision of justice beyond the limits of balanced self-interest.
Democracy? The people can be collectively self-interested and as tyrannical as the leaders the Constitution is supposed to be protecting them from. Statecraft is soulcraft. The political dilemma is not simply what to do about: abortion, nuclear arms, justice for the poor, peace in Central America. Politics is the prior question: What sort of people do we want to be? What sort of world do we want to leave to our children? Who do I hope to be when I am sixty-four?
And those questions cannot be simply political questions. They are questions of the heart, issues about dreams, inquiries into the very soul of a people.
A Princeton student being interviewed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan was asked by a reporter what she thought about the possibility of American intervention.
She replied, “There’s nothing worth dying for.” Which means, of course, that one day she shall have the unpleasant task of dying for nothing. No people can decide upon the “issues” unless we can figure out what’s worth living and dying for.
Whether government — ours or any other — dare ask such questions is doubtful. Only a people of faith dare ask these questions, which brings us to what I believe is a great gift Christians offer the American predicament.
The main vocation of the people who follow Jesus is to be the church. The church doesn’t water down its vision into some political program which we then try to push on the American people through legislative coercion. The church, in its very existence, is a political program. The church helps America, the church does politics, by living a vision which is something more than present arrangements, by being what the Bible calls, a “light to the nations.”
Let me illustrate.
A meeting last summer of my church’s Annual Conference. We had spent all afternoon on the Report of the Board of Church and Society. Various resolutions were being sent to the Governor. A person rose. I knew him; he was a religion professor at our college. “Be it resolved,” he said, “that the South Carolina United Methodist Conference go on record as opposing abortion as a means of birth control….” Knowing his impeccably liberal credentials, I was surprised. The resolution continued, “We therefore offer our churches, our church Children’s Homes, and the financial resources of our church to support those women who elect to go through with a difficult pregnancy rather than seek an abortion.”
The Director of our church’s Children’s Home passed out. There was an audible gasp throughout the Conference. Motion defeated.
How much easier for the church, right or left, to send resolutions to our legislature, telegrams to the governor — insisting that the state work justice — than to do justice in our own church, our own family, my own life. It’s easier to spend somebody else’s tax money than to submit myself to the possible suffering and sacrifice which is required to be true to my convictions.
In my church, “social action” means politics, trying to get Congress to do right. Yet many of us believe that the crucial social activist question for the church is: What kind of community does the church need to be in order to be faithful to our Christian convictions? Our primary task is not to help the President keep things running smoothly. Our first political task is to be the church, to keep criticizing ourselves, our message and our life together so that we become a people who are formed by the Gospel.
We best criticize the political order by being the church, by going back home and doing the tough work required to be a visible demonstration that Jesus makes possible a new social order based not upon what works, but upon His lordship. The New Testament speaks of the church as a “colony,” a “peculiar people,” those who are called out, set apart so that they might pioneer a new social arrangement based upon the truth which is Jesus Christ rather than upon law, coercion, power, falsehood, or national arrogance.
The pitiful sight of Christians going hat-in-hand to Congress, “Will you let us say a little prayer in school? It doesn’t have to be a good prayer, just a little prayer because we can’t make Christians on our own anymore — the public schools must help.” Or as a “birthday present for Jesus,” people bombing clinics because they have no confidence in the power of the truth to change people.
No. We convert the world by being a witness, in our own corporate life, that truth needs neither violence nor coercion to make its way. The church serves the world by providing a light, an imaginative alternative for society. When Jesus calls us He calls us to come be part of a people who are struggling to create those structures which Caesar can never achieve through governmental power and balanced self-interest.
By the second century, the churches of Rome fed twenty-thousand of that city’s poor — not as a social strategy but as an outpouring of what the church believed happened in the world since Jesus. The Puritans sowed the seeds for the American revolution — not because the Puritans were interested in being revolutionary but because they proved, in dozens of New England churches, that democracy works for a people who are freed by Christ to trust one another. The first Christians turned the world upside down, not by getting a majority of seats in the Roman Senate, but because the Classical world looked at the church and said, “See how they love one another.”
This is the challenge. The church is to be a light to the nations. The church is to be salt of the earth, not honey to help the world’s solutions go down easier.
Politics is fine, as far as it goes. But of late I have been impressed with the limits of politics, the pitiful inability of our public order to create the very conditions whereby citizens might be better than we would be without the aid of the state. Observing the 1983 March On Washington, I remembered Martin Luther King’s march of twenty years before. Unlike the earlier march, the 1983 March seemed to be a rally about how to get one political party out of power and thus bring in the Kingdom.
Martin Luther King marched for more. He marched to win the soul of a nation, to catch the conscience of a people, appealing to the best in us, black and white. We responded by living up to the vision he had of us. King wanted laws passed. But King never believed that laws alone could secure the vision which the church had given him. Changed laws don’t bring justice; only changed people do that.
Christians are those who are being changed by the blinding vision that God — not nations — rules the world, that there is a purpose to life beyond my selfish strivings, that ultimately, by God’s grace, we shall know the truth and the One who is the way, the truth, and the life — not laws, not guns, not wealth, not power — makes us truly free.

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