10 February 2017
A few days ago, a friend gave me some friendly criticism. He suggested that I had begun to write more about politics than theology. He encouraged me to “stick to theology please.” His reprimand invited not a rebuttal but a longer reflection.
The word “politics” comes from the old Greek word politica. It concerns achieving and exercising governance over a human community like a city or a state. Politics, in the traditional humanitarian sense, strives to maintain the common good. In our American political tradition, of course, key political expressions of the U.S. common good are found in the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution: all people are created equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The 1787 U.S. Constitution stresses the importance of insuring justice, domestic tranquility, liberty, and the general welfare – for all.
“Theology” comes from two Greek words: theos and logos, meaning discourse about God. The traditional definition of theology is that it is “faith seeking understanding.” Theology probes and tries to understand and interpret the human experience of the Divine, whether called “Ground of Being;” “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;” “the Sacred;” “God;” or “Allah.”
In every generation, Christian theology strives to provide a believers’ narrative that makes sense of who we are today: that makes sense of the Good News of Christianity that God is love and we are not fated by our mistakes. Life is stronger than death. Care is stronger than hatred. We are all destined to be friends with one another and with God. Christian theology comes from a thoughtful conversation between the “I” who is a believer and the “we” who are believers. It is grounded in Christian tradition, the scriptures, and the experience of contemporary believers.
I am not a politician but a theologian. I have no interest in getting involved in party politics. One can be a Republican or a Democrat or belong to any or none of the smaller political party groups. In the current U.S. political situation, I respect all party loyalties. I respect the right of anyone to be “conservative” or “progressive.” I expect people to respect my political stance as well.
As a citizen of the United States and of the world, I do have some concerns about the current occupant of the White House. Yes, these are my personal opinions and I have no desire to impose them on anyone. Personally, I think the current occupant is an immoral, psychologically unstable, and incompetent leader. The U.S. political process will have to deal with what has already become a very real and critically dangerous situation.
Now to religion. A religion is an institutionally organized and highly structured theology. It has institutional and cultic leaders, set symbols and rituals, an official creed or statement of belief, a code of morality, sacred scriptures, and sacred places like shrines, synagogues, mosques, and churches.
When religion and politics get twisted together, one can expect sparks, short circuits, and explosions. The genius of the American political philosophy and governmental structure has been a strict separation of church and state. Good political wisdom. Good religious wisdom. As an American I don’t want a theocracy. I don’t, for instance, want an imam telling me what to do: establishing rules of life for me and telling me what I can or cannot do. That being said, I don’t want any rabbi or any bishop or any evangelical reformer establishing rules of life for me and telling me what I can or cannot do as a citizen. Religious leaders can and should critique government policies; but they shouldn’t become political operators. And certainly not high level functionaries of any political party. An established church or religion is the end of democracy, and undermines the common good.
It is a very dangerous situation, when a religion becomes the political engine that runs a country. Why? History teaches and current events demonstrate that highly politicized religion loses its proper religious identity. By becoming so intimately bound up in the political operations of society, it loses its ability to challenge the values of that society. It loses the always necessary prophetic and counter-cultural social critique function of a religion. Over time, it loses as well its ability to be of service to people. It loses its proper religious identity. Instead, it becomes an autocratic crowd-control mechanism. It ceases being the object of respect and admiration. It becomes the cold, controlling, and demanding object of idolatry. We see this happening in Erdogan’s Turkey. The Orthodox Church and Putin are doing it in Russia. Mr. Trump is clueless about what is going on.
By way of conclusion, I have no desire to get entangled in party politics. As a strong believer in Christ and as an historical theologian, however, I will speak out about and challenge any politician, political policy, or political movement that denigrates or destroys another person because of that person’s gender, sexual orientation, race, religious identity, or nationality. Being the Good Samaritan is not just pious platitude demanding polite lip service. It is the way of Christ. I will speak out as well, however, and I will protest any religious leader who becomes so entangled in politics that he or she ceases to be a prophetic witness to the message a spirit of Christ in contemporary society.
Lent is just around the corner and I am gathering my Christian thoughts……Warmest regards to all. If you have suggestions you can always write.
Dr. J. A. Dick — Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, Belgium. Email: email@example.com