Sermon GUC 12 June 2022
Paul in his letter to the Romans said, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities: for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1). Paul was talking about the Roman Empire and made the claim that it had been instituted by God. Would you agree?
There are times when being a preacher is a risky business. This is the third in a series on idolatry and we have arrived at politics. Please note my timing: it is AFTER the federal election! So no hidden or overt messages about how to vote.
Why do I risk speaking on this topic? I think as Christians we should take the opportunity to think biblically and theologically about what really matters. And politics matter.
- Political Institutions are human
Political parties comprise a group of people. Such an organisation is 100% human. And we are imperfect. Human and imperfect – can we agree on these two assumptions? And yet it is easy to think of historical examples when the humanity of leadership been forgotten.
- The divine right of kings in the middle-ages and later.
- Churches which have thought they had a ‘communication pipeline’ to the Almighty (too numerous to mention).
- Authoritarian states whether Communist or Fascist, left or right, that dictate to citizens what can and cannot be believed.
There seems to be a point at which a line is crossed. Claims are made of an authority that is more than human. Allegiance is made to a source in the divine realm and all this becomes idolatrous. Usually, the bottom line will involve power and exploitation.
I love the story of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who landed on the moon in 1969. In the months of preparation, the Apollo 11 astronauts trained in a remote moon like desert in western USA. They encountered some of the native American Indians. One day a native asked what they were doing and they informed him that they were part of research expedition that would soon travel to the moon. The old man became silent and asked whether they would do him a favour? What do you want? The old man said, “The people of my tribe believe that sacred spirits live on the moon. Could you pass on an important message?” He told them in his tribal language and they repeated it until it was memorised. They asked “What does it mean?” That he said, “Oh, I can’t tell you. It’s a secret of our tribe and the moon spirits will know.” After the moon landing they returned to the earth, were curious about the message and eventually found a native speaker of that tribe. They told him the words of the old man had asked them to communicate and the Indian laughed uproariously. What was the message? The man translated the message “Don’t believe a single word these people are telling you. They have come to steal your lands.”
- Political allegiance reflects values not eternal truths
Jonathan Haidt wrote the important book The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion (2012). He made the point that our beliefs are based on intuitions and rational thought comes later to justify a position taken. His analysis sought some common ground between what we would label left and right.
I think it is helpful to distinguish broadly four political trends:
- The Left is now divided between what I would call old left (emphasising sharing wealth through taxation and government services such as Medicare, NDIS, etc). It is represented by the traditional Labor voter. Paul Keating was a good example of old left. The new left more readily advocates causes, all are worthy but there is controversy on extremes of political correctness and cancel culture on university campuses. Many Green voters would be sympathetic to this position.
- The right has also divided. This is seen in the conflict between a small l liberal such as Malcolm Turnbull and the militant Tony Abbot. The more extreme right is seen in the USA with Tea Party and Donald Trump. It is obvious that consensus politics has been made more difficult by the emerging extremes of both left and right.
I am not arguing for the ‘truth’ in any of these four positions. They each reflect values that are important to individuals. For example, fairness and autonomy are different values, one is associated with old left and the other with old right. But values reflect what is important to us, our priorities guide behaviour, but none are absolute. Someone likened values to pizza toppings: you can argue all you like but a Hawaiian versus a Supreme is simply a matter of preference.
What matters is what we do with our values. This is illustrated by Grace Thomas. She was a black woman, the daughter of a Birmingham, Alabama streetcar conductor and his wife. She married in the 1930’s, moved to Atlanta and took a clerical job in state government offices. While she worked she studied law in night classes. When she completed her degree the family wondered what she would do with it. They were shocked when she announced that she would enter the 1954 race for governor of Georgia. There were 9 candidates, 8 men and Grace. The hot issue of the day was the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. the Board of Education. Of the 9 candidates only Grace thought racially integrated education was a good idea. Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the polls”. Not many did; she ran dead last. Her family hoped that she had gotten it out of her system. But eight years later, in 1962, she ran for governor again. Now the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. Again, she was in the midst of controversy, she received death threats and members of her family travelled with her on the campaign trail for protection. In Louisville, Georgia she chose the site of her speech, a place that had once been a slave market. She said to the crowd who gathered, “The old has passed away and the new has come. This place represents our past and we must repent. A new day is here, a day when Georgians white and black can join hands to work together.” Someone shouted at her, “Are you a communist?” “No”, she said softly, “I am not.” The heckler continued, “Well, then where’d you get those damned ideas?” Grace thought for a minute and pointed to the steeple of a church, “I got them over there in Sunday School.” Not many people take seriously what they learnt there. Grace did; we can. Just for the record, Grace was not elected governor in 1962. She finished last again. But she had a life lived for others. She lived out her political values in light of her Christian faith. That is her challenge to us as well.
Discuss: What values are important to you? How well do you tolerate people of different values?
I think we can avoid the extremes of political idolatry. Of course, politics is important. Our vote protects us from autocratic leadership. St Paul, though a Roman citizen, did not have a vote and had to accept the rule of Caesar. We must constantly remind ourselves that politics is a human game, yes one of power, but not a direct expression of divine authority. That is to be seduced by idols. What we have are heart felt values. When we vote let it be a considered expression of what is most important to us.
Idolatry is a biblical and theological concept. It can help us to think about important issues. In the sermon on youth I characterized idolatry as an over-valuing of something less than God. In the sermon on romantic love I explored the expectation that such love can ultimately save us. And in today’s sermon on politics I believe that our allegiances become idolatrous when divine authority is mistaken for what is human and ultimately fallible.
Dr Bruce A Stevens (PhD Boston U, 1987) is supply minister at Gungahlin Uniting Church.