A theology for political participation

October 24, 2008

As a black Episcopal priest and a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School [in Cambridge, Massachusetts], I have a personal theology on political participation (of which voting is a crucial part) that is a composite of my 48 years as a social activist and my practical application of the theological training I received at the Episcopal Theological School in the 1960s.


Briefly put, I believe that we are to take Jesus' admonition seriously that we are "to be in the world but not of the world" and practice our faith with the gentleness of doves and the wisdom of serpents. It is my belief therefore that Christians are called to be "conservatives whose status quo has yet to be achieved." No matter what the societal arrangements under which we may find ourselves at any given time, they would all fall short of the values of the reign of God and therefore lead to exclusion, oppression and the unequal distribution of resources.

As a person committed to non-violent direct action I fully endorse the notion that Christians have an obligation to oppose unjust laws, malevolent practices (i.e. racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and classism), and oppression of all kinds which denies our common humanity and creates victims in every case.

Martin Luther King Jr. put this clearly in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and Bishop Desmond Tutu has dedicated his life to this proposition. We are looking toward a presidential election and don't know the depths to which our economic crisis will sink. In both cases we have an obligation to seek the truth when possible and to act on that truth on behalf of the candidates and policies which most approximate the values of justice, compassion and reconciliation.

It has often been noted that the "moral" arc of the universe bends toward justice, however, justice is rarely defined in our culture as a transformation of deeply held patterns of greed, violence and chauvinism. If that is true then we must accept that the teachings of the Gospel are good news for some and bad news for others, or as the old folks used to say "God doesn't like ugly."

If one can adopt this approach then one can remain sufficiently detached from the propaganda, spin, and cults of personality which too often characterize our political process and when added to the corrupting influence of financial contributions to candidates and lobbyists can lead many to cynicism and despair.

However I believe that Paul Tillich was correct when he observed that "a cynic is merely a frustrated idealist." I also agree with Bertrand Russell when he stated "where there is hope, despair is the coward's part." As Christians we are called to be prisoners of hope, constantly seeking the will of God for ourselves and our nation while striving to respect the dignity of every human person as we have promised in our baptismal covenant. Thus no matter what happens in the short term, the struggle will continue and our goal should not be to win or prevail, but to be faithful to this vision of the reign of God.

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