June 10, 2018 – Church of Holy Trinity, Trinity Square
Our sisters and brothers at the Corrymeela Community, Northern Ireland’s longest-serving centre for peace and reconciliation, begin their day with these words:
“We resolve to live life in its fullness:
We will welcome the people who’ll be part of this day.
We will greet God in ordinary and hidden moments.”
What a remarkable story from the Book of Samuel. The elders of Israel complain to Samuel about the judges who were the government of the day. Israel was a group of scattered tribes under attack by the Philistines. The elders wanted a strong man for protection.
Samuel goes to God. Warn the elders, says God, a powerful king will turn against them. He will force their sons and daughters into his army and his kitchens. The people “shall become his slaves”.
Note God’s use of the possessive pronoun: The army, kitchens, slaves; they are “his”, that is, the king’s possessions. You could call it the “King Nation”. God warns: You want a strong man: be prepared for a strong man. And so, Samuel reports to the elders. They insist they want… they need… they must have… a powerful king. Fear has driven them to embrace the false comfort of a strong man.
Samuel isn’t just an object lesson for a people long dead; the political theology of Samuel is relevant to the 21st century. Today, people still cry out for a strong man to save them from real or imagined fears. Human systems produce strange results. Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won office due to the mechanics of the US electoral college. In Thursday’s Ontario election: the Conservatives gained 40% of the vote but scored 61% of the Legislature seats due to the mechanics of first-past-the-post – securing a strong majority of seats with a minority of votes.
I’m not going to offer a partisan lament. This morning, it’s time to consider the role of people of faith in the public square – as seen through the political theology of today’s readings.
Samuel is celebrated as one of the most beautiful books of the Bible. Theologian Moshe Halbertal and law professor Stephen Holmes in their brilliant book The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel, say the anonymous author of Samuel is “an uncannily astute observer of politics and the complexities of power”. They note:
“Power is an indispensable tool needed for a vital political good… [But] the privileges and status of the highest political office can be intoxicating, transforming sovereign authority all too easily into an end-in-itself, a stand-alone goal which becomes the very raison d’etre of those seeking to gain or maintain it.”
Some people would be happy if Christians stuck to talking about sin as if it was just a personal matter. But Samuel, and the rest of the Bible, tell us that sin is not just about individuals. There are “structures of sin”. Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote:
“…the church has to denounce what has rightly been called ‘structural sin’: those social, economic, cultural, and political structures that effectively drive the majority of our people onto the margins of society.”
Martin Luther, drawing on Augustine of Hippo, who, in turn, drew on the writings of Paul, offered a remarkable definition of sin. He said sin comes from a human nature “deeply curved in on itself”. The Latin phrase is: incurvatus in se.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr said that “the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice”. Samuel is a wake-up call to the powerful structures that twist the moral arc of the universe in the opposite direction – towards injustice. We know the phrase that power corrupts. Samuel tells us how that happens. Authors Halbertal and Holmes point to a “reversal of means and ends”:
“…the conversion of genuine ends such as the sacred, love, loyalty, and moral obligation into means in the hands of power wielders who, above all, seek to maintain their rule… it can and frequently does contribute to an environment of alienation, mistrust, and paranoia that naturally erupts in violence.”
Samuel chapter 18 tells us that after David’s great victory against Goliath and his incredibly bloody rout of the Philistines, David returned in triumph. Women poured onto the streets singing, banging tambourines and playing musical instruments. The women sang to David, to the great annoyance of Saul: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”
David was a mighty king whose power was measured in mountains of dead bodies. And yet, this mighty David cried to God in today’s Psalm because all his might did not translate into right. David cries out: “On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exulted among humankind.”
William Stringfellow was an Anglican lay theologian writing in the early 1970s when US president Richard Nixon was one step away from impeachment; the US was waging immoral wars around the world; US cities were exploding in economic, social, racial and physical violence; the country was being choked in a blanket of pesticides; and the well-being of millions was being cynically disregarded by his government.
In other words, pretty much like today.
Some call Stringfellow an “authentic prophet in American history”. He wrote in his disturbing and wonderful book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land:
“The biblical topic is politics. The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem… the politics of death and the politics of life…”
Jesus, in our Gospel lesson today, sets a practical marker: Politics is measured by how we treat each other, and especially how we treat those amongst us who are hungry and thirsty, the prisoners, the naked, the sick and the stranger.
Imagine a politics that has, as its highest aspiration, the common good as expressed in the sacred, and love, and loyalty and moral obligation. Consider how politics was often practiced in Samuel, and how it is practiced today: Crude self-interest, personal gain, the deliberate cultivation of divisions, the demonization of the “other”, a crass reversal of means and ends.
What does political theology tell us about how we get from where we are now to where we want to be: the place of true love and real justice and an honouring of all that is sacred.
We need to work to replace the politics of division and greed with the politics of love and justice. Which brings me to Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. In his address at the recent Royal Wedding he spoke of the muscular power of love:
“The late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once said: ‘We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.’ There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalize it. There’s power – power in love.”
On May 24th, Bishop Curry joined with 2,000 other Christians in a candle-lit march to the White House in Washington for the Reclaiming Jesus movement. Their common statement:
“The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ. The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace, rewarding good behavior while restraining bad behavior. When that role is undermined by political leadership, faith leaders must stand up and speak out…”
So, what does political theology tell us about how we face into the public square towards the newly elected Ontario government? To quote from the mission statement of Toronto’s Faith in the City coalition:
“We understand that:
- compassion demands action, including understanding, advocating and engaging;
- justice and mercy characterize good government; and,
- ending poverty belongs at the centre of public policy, and when it is, everyone benefits.”
So that means that people of faith must hold the Ontario government to account in fully implementing the federal-Ontario bilateral affordable housing agreement that was signed in April; and we must continue to press for effective strategizes to welcome and properly settle refugees and other newcomers; and we must continue to work with our Indigenous siblings towards full and comprehensive reconciliation; and we must ensure that the commitment to increase the minimum wage is kept; and there is more to add to this list.
I want to add two words: Sex education.
The current sex education curriculum in Ontario schools is far from perfect, but it moves in the direction of recognizing the value and dignity of all persons within a range of gender identities. The newly elected Ontario government has said that it wants to roll back these modest gains.
There are some who would relegate people of faith to the regressive side of the sex education curriculum, aligned with those who preach homophobia and transphobia and hatred towards various expressions of gender identity.
Holy Trinity has long been a strong voice within our church on gender equity issues. We need to engage in gender equity in the public square and in classrooms, as well.
At its root, the sense of dignity and respect that we hold, as people of faith, for all others, and for all of creation grows out of a deep hope. A parish priest who faithfully served our Anglican Church in western Canada for decades, the Rev. Gavin Rumsey said this:
“… there is a deep hope as you know, it’s the wellspring of life. When you are treated with respect and dignity it sows a seed of hope in your heart. That love that goes out to you is saying, ‘I’m okay. Life is okay. I can face the challenge of life,’ and that seed grows in you. When you treat others with respect and dignity, it plants the seed of hope in their hearts, and they can live in this ambiguous world which is so beautiful and so terrible. You give hope, you receive hope. It is a precious gift.”
May I end with words from Corrymeela’s Prayer for Courage:
“May we be courageous today.
May we learn today. May we love today.
And amen again.