Friday, November 09, 2012

Politics and Preachermans

The following are my views on politics and the priesthood that I shared with a potential ordinand via e-mail this morning:


It is a constant temptation to want to debate people, particularly during election season. And many priests are very political, even preaching as such from the pulpit. I have always made it a policy that I do not debate politics with parishioners. It only gets you into trouble as a priest. As polarized as this country is, anything partisan you say immediately hacks off half your parishioners. You have to be extremely careful (I can't emphasize that enough) and always realize that when it comes to politics in particular, people hear what they want to hear, whether that has any bearing on what you actually said as the priest or not. If they feel you slighted their political views, believe me, that's very bad, even if you did not. People are extremely defensive about all things political and any perceived slight is taken personally, like you were insulting their mother or something.

Now, if parishioners want to talk to me about thinking through a political issue, I am more than happy to help them think through the moral and religious implications of positions on a political issue. And I try to do that in as biblically and theologically non partisan way as I can. I think the best way as a priest on these issues is to be a good teacher and help parishioners have what we used to call "informed consciences" on matters of politics, particularly in helping people understand that this 'us versus them' mentality that we have in this country is not necessarily a Christian attitude. There is Christian charity and such.

This was pretty much my method when I was a teacher as well. I don't think it is was my job to tell people what to think or how to vote or even to get them to think like I do, but simply to get them to think and look at various facets of political issues and not just buy whatever their party of choice is hawking at the moment without question.

One always has to remember that salvation cometh not from politicians, as I always say. Jesus was very apolitical, despite what people want to make him into. People very much wanted Jesus to be that partisan political messiah that was going to stand up and kick the Romans out and all that. He consistently avoided getting sucked into man made politics of the time. He advocated for the greater Kingdom of God, not the Kingdom of Man. Augustine's City of God is brilliant in parsing that out. At best, human politics can only be a shadowy reflection of the City of God (there will always be a dark side), and at worst is a reflection of chaos or hell. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was quite the political theorist in his own right, always advocated that mankind must look to God, because we will ultimately legislate for our own self serving good if left to our own devices.

And also one has to remember that the priestly role is a vocation, and your primary vocation is as a priest or spiritual leader. And you have to foster that belief in others in your parish. You are not there to be their drinking buddy or some sort of preaching cheer leader. You are there to be the priest. I have found that when one gets sucked into political debates, you no longer are the spiritual leader, but you become (at least in your own eyes) a political leader or entity of some kind. I do believe that is very dangerous to your vocation as a spiritual leader and father to the parish because the temptation is to believe that your own partisan political worldview is somehow God's own political worldview, and that is seldom the case. When the Church starts getting in bed with worldly politics, bad things almost invariably happen. I am convinced that is why Europe is so anti-Christianity in many places because for centuries the church and the state were playing in the same band, and when the state got sucked into Empire and finally World War I, the church had largely been the primary cheerleaders for all that. When World War I became a ungodly blood bath where Christians on both sides were dehumanizing and killing each other in heinous ways, people lost faith in the Church because they, even in their own secular understanding of things, could see that the Church had prostituted itself to things not heavenly and were not necessarily speaking for God. And the basic question that Europeans of that ilk are askings, and the Church has not been good at giving them a coherent answer, is "If you are not speaking for God, why should we listen to you?"

I am oversimplifying that slightly, but your job as a priest is to tell people about Jesus. That is why people should listen to you. Jesus was neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Trying to figure out what an itinerant Jewish rabbi from the 1st Century who was likely not even a Roman citizen would do or say in light of modern American political theory is very dangerous. You constantly run the risk of putting words in Jesus' mouth, and I am always very hesitant to do that. I always think of that story in the Gospels when Jesus says words to the affect of "People will come to me in the end, and say, 'Lord, lord, we did all this stuff in your name!' and I will reply, 'Depart from me, I knew you not.'"

Those words always haunt me when I am tempted to get into it with a parishioner on something political. If you are called to a vocation of public service in the government, that is fine. We need good Christians with informed consciences on all levels of government, but that's not the role of the priest. That's just my opinion. I know many a priest that vehemently disagrees with me on that and think they should use their clerical collar to beat whatever political hobby horse is their schtick, whether its liberal "social justice" things or right wing "family values" things. But, at the end of the day, if you look at the actual parishes of priests like that, their congregation very quickly becomes people who act and vote exactly like them, and they have run off everyone with a different view of politics. There is word for that: inbreeding. That's always the death of a parish long term. When a parish gets philosophically inbred, it will die. It may take a generation or two, but I firmly believe that God lets churches that aren't proclaiming the gospel die. Political movements come and go, but Jesus remains. The priest is an advocate for all the people in the parish and is an icon of Christ to everyone not just the Republicans or the Democrats.

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