Sunday, October 14, 2007

Wow, did I have a great time at the Faith and Politics Conference at Yale (it was actually called "Voices and Votes")!

It was quite an experience returning to my Alma Mater after 25 years. Sitting in the chapel, looking at the pulpit where I preached my first (terrible) sermon 27 years ago for a preaching class gave me a real poignant sense of the passage of time. Sitting outside the dorms where Shelley and I lived for the first three years of our marriage had a certain bittersweet quality as well. It was all a bit surreal. Sometimes life feels like a dream.

Hanging with David Kuo was a riot. We've been corresponding for the last several months via e-mail, but this was the first time we ever actually met. Some friendships take several years to get off the ground, others several seconds. Ours was definitely in the second category. I think we were throwing out jabs at each other about four sentences after saying "Hi, I'm...."

For example, after my panel discussion David came up to me and said, "You totally sucked!" To which I responded, "Well at least I had the gonads to say something unlike some weenies I know!" (He hardly had a chance to say anything on his panel). It's that kind of friendship, and I love it. It's our way of saying to each other, "Man you were great!"

One of the highlights of the Conference was David and Tony Hall sharing their very different experiences as Christians working in the White House. David headed up Bush's Faith Based Initiative and Tony Hall is a Congressman and heads up the Foreign Aid committee. David's political experience was in the end quite negative and has led him to stress the importance of Christians making a clear distinction between their faith and politics. Tony Hall's experience has been very positive and has led him to believe that Christians need to be heavily involved in politics. It wasn't a debate, but simply a sharing of different experiences, and it was fascinating...and moving. Both David and Tony were asked to share how trauma has impacted their faith. David shared about his ongoing struggle with brain cancer, and Tony about his experience losing a 14 year old son to leukemia. After a day of academic sparring, this gut level dialogue was powerful!

I also enjoyed having my ideas challenged. Probably not surprisingly, the most animated and beneficial engagement, from my perspective, was with my friend Jim Wallis. We especially sparred over whether the Church is called to be "the conscience of the state." Jim thinks we are, I think we're not. Jim points to the example of the role Old Testament prophets played in confronting various kings in the Old Testament. I argued back that this was done in a theocratic context in which it was understood that prophets were supposed to confront kings, but that this didn't carry over into the New Covenant -- which is why Jesus and his followers never confronted kings. (Yes, John the Baptist confronted Herod, but that's because Herod was a Jewish King. John the Baptist never confronted a pagan King).

Through the discussion, we almost came to see eye to eye. I can grant that there's one sense in which the church is to be the "conscience of the state" -- because I see one way in which Jesus was the "conscience of the state." Jesus never acted like he had any superior wisdom about how the world should run, and so he never advised Caesar or Pilate about governmental matters. So I don't think we who are his followers can claim any special wisdom about governmental matters. (History I think is on my side here). But, Jesus did expose the injustice of Caesar's program by his willingness to suffer at its unjust hands. The cross is Jesus' protest vote to the injustice both of Caesar's government and Ciaphas' religion. This, I think, is how we're supposed to protest injustice -- not by superior wisdom, but by voluntary self-sacrifice.

This is why both Jim and I can approvingly point to Martin Luther King.

Finally, I have to say I was impressed with Tony Hall's testimony about how he feels God has used him in Congress. For example, one time a massive amount of funding for famine relief was cut. Tony at one point felt led by God to go on a 20 day fast to get this funding back. Word got out and many others joined him. He ended up getting more money back than was cut! Thousands of people were fed who otherwise would have gone hungry. Here's a beautiful example of what can happen when we enter into solidarity with those on the loosing end of injustice -- as Tony did with the hungry who needed this relief. This testimony helped me see how God really can use people in government who strive to hear and obey God's voice. My general cynicism towards government can easily blind me to this.

At the same time, as David Kuo point out in his response to Tony, we need to be careful. Tony's obedience to God was obviously a beautiful thing. But as he and Tony both know, Christians in the White House and elsewhere also claim to hear God about things like how people should vote on gay rights, on abortion, on tax increases, on Health Care, on stem cell research, etc...and when God is invoked on "wedge issues"this just gives a religious intensity to the vicious polarization of the political scene and it dishonors God.

So, as in many other matters, on the issue of Christians in politics we have to say, "yes -- but."

Keep thinking, growing and loving!