Friday, November 21, 2008

Talking Politics in Church

Over the course of the presidential campaign, I’ve had the opportunity to think about talking about politics in the church.

I think we make a mistake if we simply say that politics does not belong in church. In some ways it does and in some ways it does not.

Politics is the way people organize themselves to take action as a group. Usually when we use the word “politics” we are talking about civil government. The problem, of course, is that many are tempted to illegitimately use their personal power to influence or coerce a group. At the same time, other human weaknesses like fear, anxiety, impatience, gullibility, greed, and so on can also interfere with a group’s capacity to make the best decisions they can.

I think the first question is, “Should the Christian faith influence how Christians speak and act in the politics of civil society?” I think the answer is certainly, “Yes.”

The next question is, “As a church, should we help one another think, speak, and act more faithfully as Christians in the politics of civil society?” Again, I think the answer is certainly, “Yes.”

A third question is, “Will there be a specific set of policies that will be clearly “Christian policies?” Here the answer is almost certainly, “No.” This means that Christians are likely to disagree about who the better candidate is, what the better policy alternative is, and so forth.

I think the question that is being raised within our congregations concerns our ability to cope with disagreement. And THAT is a fundamental element of what we are trying to do in our congregations.

Rather than rule a discussion about social justice or politics off limits, I suggest that we find better ways of helping people talk together about what Jesus and the Bible have to say about questions of social justice. How these teachings apply to real life situations in the 21st century is probably not always going to be clear. There are always going to be trade offs.

I would say that we must discuss social justice and politics in church. At the same time, we must avoid partisan cheerleading, which is typically unthinking and divisive. Learning to distinguish between the two is important. In my view, the church needs to model how to have conversations about subjects on which people disagree. That is hard work and we will sometimes get it wrong. But then comes the next fundamental dimension of our ministry: learning about forgiveness and reconciliation.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What is the Authority of Scripture?

The problem with nearly all discussions of the authority of Scripture lies in the fact that participants fail to recognize that Scripture is simply not the sort of thing that CAN be an authority. An authority must be able to render judgments. Whatever else it may be, Scripture is a linguistic artifact, and hence it is incapable of rendering any judgment.

The yearning to establish Scripture as an objective, impersonal authority betrays the enlightenment-based suspicion of personal authority. No text can function as an impersonal authority, because any text depends for its life on an interpreter. Our interpretation of any text is a dialogue with that text, which is inseparable from our experience, our reason, and our tradition. At the same time, our interpretations of our experience, reason, and tradition are also tested by our interpretation of Scripture. There is no fixed point of reference when it comes to interpretation.

I suggest that each Christian must come to answer this question: What community of faith do I accept as an authority to help me interpret Scripture? There is no doubt that different Christians accept the authority of different communities of faith in which they participate.

This state of affairs does not make me anxious.