It was not quite four years ago, and the presidential campaign was in full swing, when a controversy arose over comments made by the pastor of a Chicago congregation that was home to one of the front-runners in the race. The candidate was Barack Obama, the pastor was Jeremiah Wright, and the comments concerned Pastor Wright’s interpretation of the events of September 11. At a time when our nation was paralyzed by polarized thinking – when the only way to be for us was to be against them – Jeremiah Wright made the near-blasphemous suggestion that the attacks of September 11th were attributable, at least in part, to our country’s economic exploitation and military presence throughout Africa and the Middle East.
It was an embarrassment for then-candidate Obama. Pastor Wright was the public voice and the prophetic conscience of one of the largest Black churches on the South Side of Chicago. Obama’s membership in that congregation was a sign of his deep roots in the African-American community and his solidarity with South-siders of all stripes. It was painful to watch pastor and president-to-be position themselves against one another. Eventually, in an act of damage control for his campaign, Barack Obama resigned his membership in the church.
The president at that time, George Bush, was quite familiar with the tactics of damage control and spin doctoring, sometimes both at once, as when his former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, released a memoir of his time in that position asserting that White House officials, including the president, relied on an aggressive political propaganda campaign to sell the Iraq war to the American people.
Spin doctors and damage control are permanent fixtures in today’s politics. Spin doctoring is the art of interpreting events in their most beneficial aspect for the benefit of the candidate, the elected official, the campaign, the party, etc. Damage control is that set of actions taken to limit the negative effects of any story that might hurt the candidate, official, and so on. As citizens and voters the words hit our own ears with a harsh tone, because we are so accustomed to our politicians protecting their self-interest through the tactics of spin doctoring and damage control.
These past few weeks we’ve been considering God’s Politics however, and we’ve opened ourselves up to the idea that the candidate for office God is backing is you, is each one of us. So, when God sets out to do damage control on our campaign, or to spin the story for positive effect, how might those efforts hit our ears? The answer isn’t far away, in fact, it’s shot all through this morning’s scriptures.
Consider the passage from Jeremiah. There we hear that God’s candidates had made campaign promises they failed to live up to. Specifically, they’d made a covenant with God, that they would be God’s people in a land filled with other gods, other values demanding their worship. Like many campaign promises, this one was broken not long after it was made, as the people of Israel found it more convenient or more profitable to offer their allegiance to the false gods of power and wealth.
Yet, rather than toss them aside like so much collateral damage in today’s political and military tactics, God remains faithful to God’s candidates even when they are unfaithful to God. God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33b-34)
Here we see that God’s Politics are an entirely different sort than the ones we’ve grown accustomed to. Faced with political embarrassment, with gross infidelity on the part of the candidates, with broken campaign promises, God does damage control not for the sake of God’s honor, but for the sake of God’s people. God does not cast aside those who struggle, those who fail, to live up to the planks of God’s platform. Instead, God spins the covenant in a new way. Remembering the law written on the tablets given to Moses at Mount Sinai, God declares through Jeremiah that God will write the law once again, but this time on our hearts, on flesh and not stone.
The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?[i]
Might this be what it means for God to have written God’s law on our hearts? That we have been called in our candidacy to consider our relationship to our neighbor not out of obligation, but out of love? That we have been called to listen and learn, rather than speak and judge? That we have been called to work “courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever” for the common good, for the ways of being that promote the most life for the most people? For the 99% and not the 1%. Could it be that God’s spin on the covenant is also how God does damage control for all of God’s people?
Candidates, and I mean all of you (and me as well), I have to tell you something about God’s Politics that runs counter to much of what’s being preached in the public square today. God is not a rugged individualist and God’s prophets do not preach the gospel of personal responsibility and self-reliance. One of my favorite preachers, Jim Gertmenian of Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, put it this way in his sermon last week,
Personal responsibility and self-reliance are fine values, as far as they go, but the heart of Christianity is in another place altogether. It has to do with community, with helping one another, with being vulnerable to one another, with being in this together, not with the rugged individualist who goes it alone. And by the way, the next time someone piously quotes to you the saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” as a justification for cutting social programs, will you please remind that person that those words do not come from scripture, they were never spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, they come from Benjamin Franklin.[ii]
Or, in more ancient words, it is as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans,
“then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Romans 3:27-28)
It is Reformation Sunday, so I would be remiss if, as a Lutheran, I did not make some mention of Martin Luther’s challenge to the powers and principalities of his day, of his confrontation with the Roman church over the sale of indulgences and his act of nailing 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. I don’t think, however, that our brother Martin was looking for fame or annual homage when he took this public action. No, I think he had more in common with those who now occupy the public spaces of cities across the nation this morning, demanding a politics and an economy worthy of the human spirit.
Luther’s rebellious act, which we commemorate today, was a form of civil protest over financial abuses committed by the church and carried out on the backs of the poorest of the poor. Holding their fear of hell over their heads, the church was selling indulgences, guarantees of the forgiveness of sin, as if that was ever theirs to offer. Freedom, Luther preached (recalling Jesus’ words to his opponents, recalling Jeremiah’s prophetic spin doctoring), comes from the deepest truth that in God’s love we are all forgiven, for free, forever.
The demanding question God’s Politics ask of us today is: if all are loved, and all are forgiven, and all belong in this world by virtue of their divine parentage and not their earthly rank, then why do our politics continue to divide and conquer us?
It is four years later and the campaign is, as always in full swing. Once again there are words coming from a Chicago pulpit challenging the candidate to name the sins of empire for what they are. But this time the candidate is you, and empire is all around us. It’s not just about ending the war, though it is that. It’s not just about occupying Wall Street, or Main Street, though it is that as well. It’s about finally setting aside the polarized politics of us and them and remembering God’s spin on the covenant, “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest… for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” It is not the politics of the 99%, or the 1%, but of the 100%. It is God’s Politics, and we are its ambassadors.