Religion and Politics

Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times recently reported that Sarah Palin’s version of Pentecostalism is rooted in the notion of ‘spiritual warfare.’

Goodstein refers to George Otis Jr., president of the Sentinel Group which has produced video documentaries about spiritual warfare at work.  “The term spiritual warfare sounds scary as all get-out if you’re not biblically literate…it’s taken from the sixth chapter of Ephesians, which talks about the weapons of our warfare are not of this world, which means we don’t respond with guns or violence.  If we’ve got a problem with somebody we’ll go and pray,” says Otis.

I appreciate George Otis trying to make ‘spiritual warfare’ more palatable.    I know a little about the Bible and it’s pretty clear that God and the Devil are pitted throughout in a cosmic power struggle.  Sometimes the mythic wrangling breaks out in armed conflict.

It is a logical conclusion to the idea of ‘spiritual warfare’ that sometimes there is no other choice but to go to war.  It wasn’t all that long ago that President George W. Bush said that “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq.”

God told me to go to war so I have to do it.

However defined, warfare is no Sunday school picnic.  You go to war to overcome your enemy. You go to war to dominate.  You go to war because you cannot trust the world.  There is always some boogeyman around the next corner—there are demons you cannot see and powers and principalities that seek to do you ill.  Pray that God will dominate these evil forces and failing that, take up your sword and slay the evil dragon.

In a hostile universe spiritual warfare is a means to an end.  The word warfare implies that hostility and violence may be necessary.  First, we put on the full armor of God in prayer.  The belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness reinvigorates our virtue. While seeking to dominate the evil one (in whatever form) we proclaim the gospel of peace.

The problem with the spiritual warfare metaphor is that it implies that violence, though regrettable, is often redemptive. Theologian Walter Wink puts it like this. “The gods favor those who conquer…Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat…ours is neither a perfect or perfectible world; it is the theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong.  Peace through war; security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.”

Do I see this destructive, dominating and absolutist mindset in Sarah Palin?

You betcha!

It’s like Ms. Palin is vying to be a cute Dick Cheney upgrade.

Not only do I detest Sarah Palin’s religious perspective, I detest it so much that it spills over into how I feel about Sarah Palin.  I would like to call her out, shout her down and tell her that her gun toting, moose shooting, dogma spouting ways are utterly medieval and ultimately destructive.  I hate the notion of spiritual warfare and I want to stamp it out in anyone who spouts it.


It turns out the very qualities I abhor in her are also in me.

I want to put her down, push her out—dominate her if necessary. She’s wrong.  I am right. She’s bad. I am good.  It’s the same game.


Good verses evil.  You are with us or against us.  Be it personal or global, the simplistic and absolutist way of thinking inevitably leads to violence and war.

Peace on the other hand, is rooted in our ability to embrace the ambiguous.  I am right but sometimes I am wrong.  You are wrong but sometimes you are right.   Unless we make room for ambiguity among us we inevitably end up making war between us.

It turns out that warfare, spiritual or otherwise is not only destructive but also self-destructive.   We need new metaphors for what it means to be spiritual, for what it means to be human.

The late Illinois Senator Paul Simon used to tell the story about a Special Olympics over which he presided. He told this story many times, and every time he told it he could scarcely finish it because it choked him up so.

In the story, disabled runners assemble at the starting line. The gun sounds and the racers sprint. About a third of the way through the race, one of the runners falls. The crowd gasps. With utter spontaneity, the rest of the runners stop in their tracks. They look in horror at the one who had fallen. Then, one by one, of their own accord, they turn around and slowly make their way back to help the fallen runner to his feet. They get him up and the race continues, with all of them running arm in arm to the finish line. They finish the race together. They recognize their inter-connectedness. They are all winners.

We all fall. We all suffer. We are all on the right track and we are all on the wrong track. Whatever path we’re on we are all called to a greater vision called by the Spirit to move beyond our suffering, to join hands and help each other to the finish line.

So how can I recognize my inter-connectedness with Sarah Palin?  That’s a tall order.

For now, all I can do is say, okay sister, I’ll take you by the hand and hope and pray that one day we will see that we’re both in this together.

Two women at Lake Street Church boosted my ego a few Sundays ago, telling me they’d heard I ought to have some wisdom for them. They asked what I thought they should do about family members who support John McCain.

“Wisdom?” I stammered, “I haven’t got a clue.”

Later, it occurred to me that I should have passed on my daughter’s advice several years ago when I was grumbling about relatives who wouldn’t be convinced of views I thought were obvious: “Dad, family gets a dispensation.” But I couldn’t even come up with that much.
Going home, fretting about my ineffectiveness, I began to think about some of the students whose lives I surely should have influenced with my alleged “wisdom.”

First, there was Josh, who wrote recently to tell me about a foundation he has created for disadvantaged youths. He said he wanted to thank me for “nudging” him to “do something meaningful with life,” adding that when he had suggested in my office one day that he wanted to become a TV celebrity I had said, “Isn’t that pretty shallow work?”

I don’t recall the moment, but I can imagine it; I tended to be pretty blunt. I felt a rush as I read Josh’s e-mail. Perhaps I’d helped to shape a life.

Then my thoughts wandered to another former student. This one came to my classroom a couple of years ago and told my students that he too had been influenced by my teaching. His work? He handles policies for U.S. military prisons around the world, including Guantanamo. And he was even more effusive than Josh in describing my impact. Confound him!

What is the point of all this? Friends for whom I have no wisdom to share? Relatives on whose views I have no impact? Students who tell me I’ve influenced their lives, but not necessarily for good? Should I begin despairing?

The point, for me, is buried in two recent contributions to this blog. Bob Thompson told us a week ago: “There is only one sin, and that is the failure to love.” And Mirabai Starr said she will sleep with any god who will have her, since she will “take holiness wherever I can find it.”

The thing that binds those ideas–and my convoluted experiences with wisdom and influence–is their unqualified insistence that our deep, deep connectedness as fellow humans is the only thing that matters. I didn’t hear a word in either essay about what was wrong, or even incorrect, about others’ ideologies and actions. I heard nothing about pressuring others to “get it right.” I heard, rather, that we all are part of the same whole, regardless of where we fit in the good/bad, admire/disdain spectrum.

Call the driving spirit of this connectedness God, if you like. Call it god. Call it humanity. Call it shalom. Call it satori. Call it love. It is the core, the ground of being, the ultimate.

What that means, to me, is that it should not matter, fundamentally, how others respond to the things I share with them. My responsibility is not to force my views, not to change people. It is only to love: to share, to give myself, and then to let go.

If that approach leads Josh to create a youth foundation, wonderful. If it leads to another student’s prison policies, I’ll have a harder time saying “wonderful.” But evaluating him or changing him (or Josh) dare not be my aim. My responsibility is simply to love, then to let love’s seeds germinate, without interference.

That’s hard for me. It doesn’t square with my activist inclinations. I want to make the world more just; I want to make my friends see things the way I do. I want to inspire them to vote for Obama. But that’s not the way love works. It connects, lovingly, then gets out of the way.

I have trouble separating religion and politics.  And I observe this to be true of my right wing brethren, especially the fundamentalists, Protestant and Catholic, in my midst, even in my extended family, with their certainty and absolutism and righteousness, a quality I have noticed in my brethren on the left, too, lo these past forty years, even in my extended family, even in myself. I don’t like that quality, and I work against it, and pray for the requisite humility necessary to undo its crippling grip.

But what I really have trouble separating, and actually don’t try to, is my spirituality from the work of justice.  That’s what it is yoked for me, with all of my limitations and blindness, as I go about my part of this work of creating a just and loving world.  And it’s our work, every one of us, we each have a part.  The Jews have the august tradition  of The 40 Just Men, always to be renewed when one of the forty dies, whose committed fidelity to the work keeps our world alive.  What a compelling story.  Updated to women and men, I want to be among them.  I suspect you do, too.  All we are required to do is to do our part.

I know this from Isaiah, from Jesus, from the Buddha, from the heart of the Koran, right down through the bloodied twentieth century’s great teachers: Buber, Merton, King, the Dalai Lama, Mandela, Weil, Teresa, Bonhoeffer, Delp, Romero.  The list, thank God, is endless, and it may well include you: so many luminous sources for discerning how to be here on this warming, beyond resplendent planet.  Martin King used to say what for me has become the consoling truth of the past forty years of my life: the arc of justice bends slowly, but it surely bends.

And it bends because of those, like King, who have devoted their lives, yea, given their lives for the surely part.  This work goes on month in and month out, every month of the year, every year.  Maybe particularly in an election year.

I have been a citizen, and a political partisan since the morning of my twenty-first birthday when I got up early to be at the door of the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha to register as a voter when it opened at 8:00 a.m.  I registered as a Democrat.  Proudly, though both my parents were Republicans, and our neighborhood and social milieu and the city and state in which I was raised were deeply Republican. I registered otherwise.  And I have never looked back.

I have changed many affiliations over the course of my life.  But this one remains a bedrock for me.  I am not naïve to the multiple complex faults and fault lines within this party, its many hypocrisies, its obtuseness.  But I am aware, and have never been dissuaded, of its absolute commitment to justice, to restoring dignity to all human beings, if sometimes slowly, to the implementation of the heart of the Beatitudes into the life of the culture, to a profound respect for individuals and to our responsibility to each other to ensure that all human beings have the ability to realize their deepest selves.

These are, too, my spiritual values, and sometimes my religious affiliation also embraces them.  But they have been distilled in me since I was young, principally in the person of my mother, with her uncanny awareness of injustice, uncanny, I say, because she was a child of privilege in a socially-segregated world.

One of my first memories of her, and a scalding one, was a startling severe reprimand she gave me.  I could not have been more than seven.  I came home from school, perhaps kindergarten, with the nursery rhyme which included the line: catch a monkey by the tail.  But I had heard on the playground at school a different version, with a derogatory and racist word instead of monkey.  When I repeated the line, my mother grew furious.  She said: We do not use that word, and we don’t treat other human beings that way.  Not in this house we don’t!

I don’t know I ever saw my mother so angry.

For that anger and all that was in it, I am yet grateful.  I learned the sharpest lesson possible in an instant. It has lasted with me a lifetime, and shaped my politics.  And it came out of her deepest religiosity.

I am not sure we can ever really say anything about God, and I am thinking we can never say for sure what God’s will is, but we can say what we have come to know from a lifetime of listening, and paying attention, and working for justice.  And, if I were to presume to speak about God, which apparently I am, I would have to say everything I sense about the Divine suggests that God is absolutely on the side of the poor, the left- behind, those imprisoned, those scorned, those humiliated, those locked out, those uninvited, those humbled by flaws and derelictions of every sort, those despised, those with neither advocates nor power, those tortured and abused, those consigned to trash-heaps of schools or trash-heaps for food, or trash-heaps for the corrugations that become shelter, those without the physical resources that dull us into our antipathies, those whose open sores ooze physically and emotionally and spiritually.

Of course, I could as easily say these are the lessons I learned from my mother, who as a representative of the Divine is not too shabby.

That is the side I want to be, not withstanding my bourgeoisie tastes and access to every kind of power imaginable.  All that qualifies me for is to do my part, my work, to bend that arc, if slowly, surely.

My partisan way is not the only way, and it is not divinely ordained. No partisan way is.  But the work of justice is, if anything ever could be.  We are required to work out in the thicket of this complicated culture our politics by the best lights we are given, and we are required to be fierce and true. And generous to a fault.  And we are required, if you will, to measure ourselves by some standard that posits a good greater than the narrow interests of our selves and our families.  One might use those humble Beatitudes, or the eloquent Sutras, or the compelling Book of Isaiah, or Rumi on any day or any night,  something outside of ourselves which invites us, as my Jesuit teachers taught, to be women and men for others.

What a gift this is to us, how blessing, how transformative.

I am not there yet, most likely will never be.  And I am likely to remain a partisan, though I hope not grippingly so!  But I yet recall the sting of my mother’s words this very morning as I write:  Not in this house we don’t!

I never want to live in any other kind of house.

While filming the controversial movie about the Passion of Christ several years ago, Mel Gibson should have gotten the message. According to newspaper reports, while filming the movie, the guy who played Jesus was struck by lightning, twice.

The odds are 350,000 to 1 that you will be struck by lightening once. The odds that we might be struck twice, are what?

“Jesus struck by lightning.” Now there’s a headline.

Imagine if one of the three remaining presidential contenders were struck twice by lightning. The media would have a field day. Actually it could be argued that Barack Obama was struck twice by lightening during the Jeremiah Wright episodes.

As the candidates make their way down the campaign trail, who knows when lightning will strike again.

If you are running for president the idea is to be popular, well liked, out on the edge without being too controversial. When you are running for president the idea is to tell people what they want to hear. But at an even more fundamental level the idea is to get elected. This means you must appeal to that 8 to 10 percent margin of swing voters on which all presidential elections hang.

It’s tough to run for president. It’s not a sprint but a marathon and in every moment you must choose your words carefully. In the nuanced art of presidential politics one must pay attention to appearance, image and spin. Then of course there’s the issue of the media focusing on your past associations and mistakes as a rationale for dismissing what you are saying here and now.

This is why presidential campaigns have their own spin doctors. A good spin doctor can put out a message that sets a prevailing tone. For presidential candidates a spin doctor can be ally or foe. Spin doctors are not a modern invention.

What would be the first century equivalent of a “handler”? Without a modern media presence it’s hard to know. Jesus could have benefited from one–maybe. Who knows, a competent spin doctor might have kept him from being crucified. According to the Gospels, Jesus had at least 12 message spreaders. One turned out to be a quisling, which according to the accounts was enough to do him in.

Jesus after all, wasn’t a perfect patriot. He didn’t wear the flag of orthodoxy or the flag of Rome on his lapel. His lack of patriot credentials made it easy to spin his message as destructively subversive. Consequently, religion and organized politics conspired together to string him up. They said he was a threat because he challenged the status quo.

One way or another, those who really challenge the status quo inevitably get strung up.

Imagine if Jesus were a presidential candidate today.

This supreme challenger of the status quo would dare us to face the truth about terrorism. He would tell us that we cannot overcome terrorism until we understand why terrorists are terrorists. He would say that terrorists are not born, they’re made. Until we understand what makes a terrorist we cannot overcome terrorism.

He would challenge us to stop worrying about investing in the stock market and start paying attention to the importance of investing in the poor.

Here’s the closer. Jesus would challenge America’s glorification of the military mindset. He would tell us that we must stop measuring our success in terms of military might. He would say that peace is not the product of being tough with our enemies but the result of understanding why our enemies see themselves as our enemies.

Throughout his presidential campaign Jesus would reject the spin of his handlers. He would say, “Don’t you know that our real enemy is not our enemy but rather the alienation, the hostility that separates us from our enemies? Aggression and the desire to dominate is the enemy that comes home to roost.”

If Jesus were to run for president he would lose. Big time.

In his own time Jesus never gave politicians the advice they wanted.

It’s no different today. Progress is never linear.

In this regard, I take solace in the words of Vaclev Havel: “Hope…is not the same thing as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good–not just because it stands a chance to succeed…Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

I am well aware of the danger in mixing religion and politics. Religion is in one sense, how we envision the truth, politics is how we organize it. Especially in a presidential election cycle the semi-permeable boundaries between religion and politics become ever so muddled.

The controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments as Barack Obama’s pastor is the most recent example.

What is going on here? Is it simply a matter of Jeremiah Wright’s edgy and “rude” comments from the pulpit? Do his comments indicate, as his detractors say, that he is a hate monger?


As I listened to snippets from his sermons played over and over again the very first thing that occurred to me was that what he was speaking the truth. It was the bare knuckled truth—hard to listen to truth —but nevertheless it was the truth.

It’s true that neither Hillary Clinton nor others who share  our skin pigment have ever suffered the indignity of the “N” word.

And although Rev Wright oversimplified the cause of 9/11, no intelligent person can deny that we live in an interdependent world and if our nation has a superiority complex, the chickens will eventually come to roost.

Given our national posture toward the “least of these” who are poor and dispossessed in our world, one can understand that in a moment of anger the desire would be to damn rather than bless America.

When Barack Obama delivered his speech in Philadelphia he reminded us that generations of African Americans had experienced overt human indignities and were struggling with overcoming their own anger about the inequities in their lives and in the “system .”

Jeremiah Wright giving voice to an anger that has been in a state of crescendo since before the founding of this country.

The topic at hand is not partisan politics, it is not even the election of Barack Obama to be president of the United States. I know that he had his political purposes in the speech but the speech itself pointed to something greater than electoral politics.

I believe there is such a thing as the politics of eternity. The politics of eternity transcends political parties and political ideologies. Most importantly, the politics of eternity always challenges those in power because those in power bear the greatest responsibility.

Jesus was not soft on the powerful in his day. If he were to suddenly materialize and be asked to give a speech to a joint session of congress, including the executive branch—to democrats, republicans, libertarians and independents alike, he might say what he said to those in power in his day: “you are blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful—but you are full of hypocrisy and injustice.” I believe he would say this to the President, to members of congress on both sides of the aisle. What most people don’t get is that Jesus was crucified because he was viewed as a threat to, one might say, homeland security.

He was crucified because the institutions of religions, government and commerce conspired against him. William Sloane Coffin put it as only he could, “ Had Jesus been as a-political as (many) want to believe, you can be sure the nails would have never grazed his hands. In the best prophetic tradition Jesus stood for the relief and protection of the poor and persecuted. (he taught) that to use the riches of creation for the good of all (rather than the greed of a few) could free the world from famine, poverty and human disasters. In the best prophetic tradition he saw that the real troublemakers were not the ignorant and cruel, but the intelligent and corrupt. Jesus knew that to love your enemies doesn’t mean don’t make any.”

As I read the vast number of comments in response to Barack Obama’s speech I wonder if these people heard the same speech I heard. When Obama talked about Jeremiah Wright he was trying to explain how a whole generation of African Americans had experienced human indignities and were struggling with overcoming their own anger about the inequities in their lives and in the “system.”

When he was talking about his grandmother he was making a complex emotional point (many blog commentators seem immune to such nuances) that he was paradoxically connected to Jeremiah Wright and his polar opposite, Barack’s grandmother.

In the politics of eternity the ultimate truth is the dignity of every human being, especially those who are a problem for you. In fact, if you don’t like Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain—or your next door neighbor for that matter—who ever makes your skin crawl is who you must learn to love and respect—no matter how despicable that person is.

The politics of eternity is about stopping our polarizing thought and action. Stop thinking trash and shut up and listen to what that other person is saying. Listen. Your goal is not to judge but to understand. Once you understand, the world we share will become a better place—not perfect but better.

This is the politics of eternity. We are all a part of God and therefore a part of each other.

 Hats off to Barack Obama who took a political moment to point us in the direction of  this eternal  truth.

Noting that religious themes are all-the-go in the current Chicago theatre scene, Chicago Tribune theatre critic, Chris Jones comments on four major stage productions being offered in metro Chicago: “Far more than in decades past, to intersect with matters of the moment is to take on the question of God–who he is, what he means, which side he is on, whether he is there at all.  In other words, both celebrations and repudiations of religion seem to sell tickets.” 

That’s the truth.  

One of the four religio-productios now playing in Chicago is Sarah Ruhl’s epic Passion Play. It’s a massive undertaking that explores the intersection of religious/political/human drama using the Passion Play of Christ and the people who were in it to tell the story. The first act is set in Elizabethan England, the second in Germany in the 1930’s-4o’s and the last in South Dakota in the 1970-80’s–it is sort of a Passion Play Americana.  

I’ve been invited to join in a panel discussion at the Goodman Theatre on October 15th.  They’re calling it, The Myth of Separation: Politics, Religion and Secular Space. This upcoming conversation begins with the premise that that the separation of church and state (religion and the politics of power) exists only in our ideals. The two are  inextricably bound together (and have always been).  The conversation at the Goodman, based on Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, implies it’s time to get honest and admit  that “church” and state have never been separate–so, let’s talk.

It’s true that in Elizabethan England, pre-war Germany and modern America, the State shows up to consecrate itself by using a religious rationale. It’s true that politics co-opts religion but it’s also true that theology by it’s very nature, is political–Politics having to do with how we organize our lives and our decisions about who has power.      

The more I think about this question the more complex it gets.   Think about it.  Every presidential candidate says they have a personal faith. Everyone of them says their faith is a compelling force in their lives.  Some of them say that when it comes to public policy issues at odds with their faith (abortion comes to mind) they’ll follow the laws of the land rather than the territory of conscience.  Hmmm. 

Can there be a true separation of “church” and state?  Do you want your presidential candidate to say that she or he will comparmentalize their faith? 

This is a very curious question and I’d appreciate a little help.  If you have a minute, please click on “comment” and tell me if you think it’s possible or even desirable for there to be a true separation between “church” and state. 

And try this. If you were running for president, would your religious/spiritual convictions influence your policy decisions?

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