Pat Conover: Sharing the Journey
Christian Political Speech

Let Forever Be by underbunny

Pat Conover*
March 2008


This comment is really about Judeo-Christian political speech as I understand it. Since I am not Jewish and have no intention of trying to speak for, or specifically to Jews, I want to begin by being clear that I write out of my understanding of Christianity.

My second introductory remark is that I want to be clear that I do not believe that Christian political speech is privileged whether it comes from an ordained minister like myself, a denominational leader, a Christian political commentator, or a Christian public official. From my point of view, Christians, and everyone else, should engage in discernment, in critical thinking, with regard to all political speech. I believe that it is as important to seek God's guidance in listening as in speaking.

The biblical record and the history of Christianity carries stories and guidelines that are useful to me in encouraging political discernment. Such stories and guidelines may also prove helpful to people who do not identify as Christian. However, the stories and guidelines are not simple and many Christian truths need to be held in tension with one another. Constructive political conversation within the Christian community should start, I believe, with respect for other Christian with whom you disagree. Furthermore, such conversation should be guided by prayerful consideration of what God is doing among us today, by watching for the current activities of God's judgement and grace. The context for our contemporary political discussions are, thankfully, substantially different from biblical times. In the United States we have democratic opportunities to pursue justice and mercy that were largely absent in biblical times.

Finally, I want to clarify a distinction I commonly make when I engage in Christian political speech: a distinction between Christendom and Christianity. I think of Christendom as establishment Christianity and I generally apply the maxim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The most obvious example for me is the centuries long abuses of the Holy Roman Empire: the Inquisition, the Crusades, the corruption. But Protestant establishment has plenty to be ashamed of as well. In my own Protestant tradition we must not forget the burning of witches in Salem, though Puritans were not the inventors of witch-burning. And some argue, I think with justification, that slavery in the Protestant United States was far harsher than slavery in Roman Catholic South America. I think of Christianity as a movement that has been repeatedly revived by the biblical story, by courageous Christian martyrs, by prophets who were filled with the Holy Spirit. Such prophets, like Martin Luther, challenged the corruptions and oppressions of Christendom.

Prophets, Priests and Kings

Prophets, priests, and kings were not the only kind of political leaders in Hebrew Scripture. There were also patriarchs, judges, eunuchs, wives, soldiers, and family leaders. But prophets, priests, and kings are the model leaders during the period that Israel was an established power. Describing them will serve to illustrate three different kinds of grounding for Christian political speech. All three roles also contributed, at least in retrospect, to the creation of democracy, though it is appropriate to emphasize the contributions of Greek and Roman thought. The three roles could and did overlap, but, for simplicity and clarity in exposition, I will treat them as distinct social roles.

It is common to think of Christian political speech as the territory of prophets. Their political speech is most shocking. Consider the following verses from Ezekial 34.

Woe betide Israel's shepherds who care only for themselves! Should not the shepherd care for the flock? You consume the milk, wear the wool, and slaughter the fat beasts, but you do not feed the sheep. You have not restored the weak, tended the sick, bandaged the injured, recovered the stragglers, or searched for the lost; you have driven them away with ruthless severity.

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord. ...I am against the shepherds and shall demand from them an account of my sheep. I shall dismiss those shepherds from tending my flock: no longer will they care only for themselves and not for the sheep. (REB)

Ezekial also prophesies against foreign nations, but the above kind of prophecy is the kind that is shocking. Not surprisingly, prophets like Ezekial were not popular with the kings of Israel and there are numerous stories of persecution. But being shocking, being courageous, being audacious, is no substitute for being right. And sometimes there is more than one side to a story. Nonetheless, it is critical to defend prophetic voices, even when they are not on target. Public confrontation in the search for the true and the good are central to accountability for those who hold power. This spirit is at the heart of democracy, the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom to worship as one wishes. Political power, however arrogant, however skillful, however oppressive, is subordinate to God's desire for the beloved community. And it is those most injured who often bring the most compelling testimony. It is the most injured we don't want to hear when we think of ourselves as gaining from the political arrangements, the terms of exchange, that are in place.

Nonetheless, feeling the hurt, doesn't necessarily make one a good analyst. Anger is not a sufficient tool for creating solutions. This is why we also need good priests and good kings in a reformed democratic context.

Priests were the creators and guardians of the law. Moses is the iconic image of such a priest. He goes up on a mountain to talk with God and comes back with the Ten Commandments. Israel spent a lot of time in captivity, a lot of time in exile, a lot of time in the wilderness, and a lot of time in diaspora. They carried their law with them and that made all the difference. They fell short of keeping the law and ended up with the challenge of guilt, but think of all they gained. First of all they knew themselves as a people of the law, however imperfect their compliance. The United States is a nation based on the constitution. In the current time of becoming ever more a multi-cultural nation, respect for and commitment to the law is fundamental for our identity and survival as a nation. The dialog between prophets and priests is about the spirit of justice and mercy on which good law should be based, on which current laws should be amended. It is the priests who help us stay grounded in spirit-based discernment when prophets speak. Are they telling the truth, reaching for the spirit of the law, concerned with the common good, and so many similar helpful questions.

The priests can be a "swing vote" in a balancing of power. Sometimes siding with the establishment to protect good order, sometimes siding with the prophets to pursue justice and mercy in fuller measure. Perhaps you are beginning to see parallels between legislators as prophets who are interested in change and what should be; and priests as judges defending the law as it exists and until it is changed.

That leaves the kings, the administrators. They have to govern in the context of what is and not just what should be. They have to deal with resources and restraints. They have to deal with conflicting perspectives and interests. And, in the democratic United States, they are charged with gathering an enormous amount of information that contributes to making well-grounded choices.

Gathering information is not the same as sharing information and so there are issues of transparency. Gathering information is not the same as wisdom and that is why feedback, particularly feedback in the form of elections, is so crucial to democracy. We want our administrators to respect the law and to share a constructive vision of the common good. We want our administrators to present positive goals, achievable goals, and not just passively administer the laws and pass out the resources by various formulas. That is, we look to our "kings" for leadership. But it is the core insight of Christian prophets, among others, that our kings must be accountable so as to avoid corruption and the capture of the common interest by narrow interests. And it is a further core insight that our "kings" must not only see the common good but also articulate the common good in ways that call forth the best cooperation and sacrifice of the many.

Christian Political Speech

The permanent tension between Christian prophets and priests, and between democratic legislators and the judiciary, is the tension between freedom and destiny, between the hunger for justice and mercy and the hunger for order. The law is precious but the spirit of the law is even more precious. We need to articulate and codify the spirit of the law over and over again in a centuries long path towards individual freedom and social predictability. We need to protect both the entrepreneurial spirit and the enforcement of contracts, to protect Social Security without over-burdening the economy, etc.

The permanent tension between Christian priests and kings, and between the judiciary and the administration in the democratic United States, is between principle and practicality. We don't need more law or less law, more regulation or less regulation, we need laws and regulations that best allow citizens and visitors to pursue their individual good and support the common good at the same time. We need good laws and regulations that work in diverse contexts for diverse populations. Working with the existing mix of law and regulation, interpreting what the law is and what the law means, is the basis for dialog between priests and kings.

The big dialog is the dialog between prophets and kings. This is where the shocking confrontations lie, such as the shocking words of Ezekial. It is the genius of democracy to want good leaders but also to correct leaders when they stray and to get new leaders when old leadership fails to do what is wanted and needed by the people. However clumsy and distorted the democratic processes in the United States, we don't have to have revolutionary wars and civil wars to make fundamental changes in direction. We can do it through elections.

Whatever one's party affiliation, or perspective within a party, it is very important to notice that in 2008 Senator McCain and Senator Obama have waged powerful primary campaigns without the support of of their party establishments and without dependence on the financial support of the most wealthy among us. Whatever the constructs that favor the same old leaders, the same old ways, the same old interests, there is still enough vital democratic spirit to make the clumsy democratic processes work. Furthermore, John Dean, the maverick Democrat of 2004, is Chair of the Democratic Party. Senator Clinton, who does have significant support from party leaders, has chosen to run on principles and policies much like those of Senator Obama and has appealed effectively to many Democrats who want significant change.

So what should Christians be saying and doing in 2008.

Christian Guidance

I am a progressive Christian and I support Senator Obama. Lots of Christians support Senator Clinton or Senator McCain. We Christians do not agree about what the common good is in many areas. Furthermore, some Christians do not like other Christians very much. In fact, it seems easier to me to engage in civil discourse within the context of accepted political rhetoric, difficult and unpleasant as that can be, than to have constructive conversations across the spectrum of current Christian communities.

For starters, some Christians respond to people like me with words like heretic or traitor. That tends to end conversations before they even start. I try not to respond in kind but I have to confess that radical Christian right speech often makes me so angry that it is difficult to summon minimal civility, much less charitable listening and engagement. But I know that such civility, and Christian based caring, is what is needed. I get most out of whack when my goals are the small goals of winning arguments, and get back to my Christian center when I remember that the larger goal is transformation.

Transformation has at least two sub-plots. The first is humility without weakness. That is easier said than done. Still humility leads me toward deeper listening instead of being reactive and shutting-down when I am insulted, when I am threatened, when I am hated. I take what I see as the dangerousness and ugliness of the radical Christian right very seriously. And I do my best to remember that God loves each and every one of the people who are distorted by the "enemy pictures" I have created, enemy pictures that side-track my discernment, that make me uncaring. When I keep my better perspective in mind I can look for the common ground, I can listen for the existential hungers that we share, can applaud the good things that the radical Christian right do; and can even find areas of political agreement, such as opposition to state-sponsored gambling.

The second sub-plot is to keep an eye on what God is doing between us in judgement and in grace. My theology leads me to believe in an active God, the Holy Spirit, the Living Christ, the Ground of Being, the Divine Presence. In political matters I look for what God is doing in judgement and in grace.

I am interested in current injustice, selfishness, and corruption but I think it is ever-so-helpful to remember what is going right in our society, to give thanks for the amazing progress that has been made in my lifetime: the civil right revolution, the liberation of women, the empowerment of those we used to call handicapped or disabled. I have lived long enough to feel amazed at the progress being made relative to the oppressions I have felt as a transgender person. We have made enormous progress against poverty, particularly for the elderly. The quality of health care and access to health care have vastly improved. The quality and availability of housing is enormously better. Transportation, communication, access to energy sources, and concern for the environment are all substantially better. Hunger has decreased.

This kind of litany helps me remember that I am not a victim, not overwhelmed by oppression, not permanently defeated politically despite what appears to me to be a pretty bad run starting with the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. It makes me want to say to the radical Christian right leaders, "Hi, how can we do better?"

Christian political dialogue, and good progressive Christian comments to the society, need to keep overcoming the ideologies of political friends and foes. It isn't really that hard to get beyond ideologies and sound bites. We can talk about what is and consider our sources and the groundings of our perspectives, and we can help each other do that in constructive conversations. We can also talk our hopes and visions and use the shared biblical references as framing stories in both our vocabularies. How do the parables of Jesus apply, the ten commandments of Moses? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of our political leaders?

What would Ezekial say today?

*Pat Conover is a Steward of Seekers Church, a retired minister of the United Church of Christ, and a former professor of sociology. Pat worked on Capitol Hill for eighteen years as a policy advocate for the United Church of Christ.

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