“When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game. But you don’t get to win unless you play in the game. Oh, you get love for it. You get hate for it. You get nothing if you….Wait for it.” –Alexander Hamilton, “The Room Where it Happens,” Hamilton
Rob Bell summed it up nicely in a recent episode of his podcast, “Politics is how we arrange our shared life together.”
No one is completely self-sufficient, all of us share this world, we all have intersections of common life…politics is simply the process by which we arrange that common life. It’s not a bad word.
It’s worth remembering that, for people of faith, our entire Holy Text is rooted in politics. If you believe there is a God, a Creator of All That Is, then you are immediately embroiled in a conversation about the “shared life” of everything that has been created. If you’ve ever said the Lord’s Prayer, or you’ve ever sung “Jesus Loves Me,” then, Congratulations, and I’m sorry, you can consider yourself a politician. The only question is–especially if you live in 21st Century America–if you are going to be engaged in the process, to get what you want, or not.
In 1 Samuel Chapter 8, we find Ancient Israel encountering a crisis during the lifetime of the prophet Samuel. This may be hard to believe, but suddenly the Israelites did not trust their political leaders. They accused them of being corrupt and only desiring to serve themselves.
I know, it’s difficult to imagine…but stay with me.
So the elders of Israel went to Samuel and insisted that God give them a King, someone who would fight the battles against their enemies and centralize power so that corruption would not run rampant. Samuel made the case that this was a foolish thing to ask for, “God freed us from slavery in Egypt so that we could live according to God’s Covenant, not under the rule of another dictator.” The people pushed back, “We want to be like other nations! Give us a King!” To Samuel’s surprise, God was in agreement with the elders. “Listen to the voice of the people in all they say to you. They are not rejecting you, but rejecting me, as they’ve done ever since I freed them from Egypt. ..Listen to their voice and set a king over them.” Walter Bruegemann sees 2 powerful things here: 1) The narrative shows how it is in conversation, dialogue between opposing view points that nations and people navigate political crises, and it is in that conversation that the Voice of God is revealed. 2) God is so committed to Israel’s freedom that God consents to their will. Bruegemann says, “God is willing to let Israel choose, and then Israel must live with its choice.” There’s a sadness in this, in Israel rejecting their God…and God does not retaliate, God does not become angry and vindictive…God allows them to choose as they will…but it doesn’t change the covenant that God’s People are expected to uphold.
It is the call, it has always been the call, and it always will be, to Love God with all you are and love your neighbor as yourself.
This is the call that should inform all of our politics. When we talk about our shared life, we should be discussing how we share love for all of God’s Beloved Children, and all of God’s Creation. Dr. Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” We have spent the last year and a half talking a whole lot about Presidential Candidates being “unfit” or “untrustworthy,” whether you look at the media and career politicians, or the FBI and special interest groups, we all see the system as hopelessly “corrupt.” NONE of this has to do with politics. These should be seen as obstacles to our ability arrange our shared life in a just way. The lament is not, “What can anyone possibly do about it? Look at all these obstacles we are faced with!” The true mission for a concerned citizen, especially a concerned citizen of faith, is to say, “Look at these obstacles….now, what is possible in spite of them?”
It is worth remembering, from the very beginning of our country, America has never been able to do politics well….without making enemies of one another.
I serve a church in Kittery Point, Maine. Our church just turned 303 years old this last week. Our history is quite rooted in the time just before, and during, the American Revolution. One of the oldest stories we tell in this church is of our famed members and benefactors Sir William and Lady Mary Pepperrell. Every year we bring out the silver they gifted our church and we use it in our celebration of communion. I wonder, though, if we appreciate what this act of remembrance really says about us as a congregation. William Pepperrell was born here in Kittery, and he was a celebrated soldier in King George’s Army. He was the first American-born citizen to be made a baronet, a high honor from the British crown. Sir Pepperrell died before the American Revolution began, but had he been alive he most likely would have been known as a Loyalist.
It’s a word that often gets left out of our stories when we tell of the Revolution, but we need to remember that when the war began every citizen in America was a British citizen. When the Continental Congress began pushing our country toward revolution, some citizens supported revolution and made themselves known as “Patriots.” Other citizens did not support the idea of revolution, largely members of the aristocracy, but also some farmers and tradesmen, and they were known as “Loyalists.” As much as 20% of America identified as Loyal to the crown, and they were terrorized and largely driven away by “Patriots.” Angry mobs would tear Loyalists from their homes. They would literally tar and feather them. Patriots would burn down the houses of Loyalists and ban them from public places. Historian Thomas B. Allen calls the American Revolution the “first American Civil War.” As much as we were fighting the British, we were fighting ourselves, literally turning neighbor against neighbor, fathers against sons…people who had known one another for years or for decades, almost overnight, became the enemy.
Many Loyalists were members of Episcopalian Churches—the official Church of England—and many Patriots in this part of the world were Presbyterian, and that is very much where colonial society was split during the years of the war. Presbyterians would attack Episcopal clergy…there are reports of a priest begin shot at during a Sunday morning sermon. But then there was the Congregational Church, and from what little I’ve found, it seems that the Congregational Church—specifically THIS Congregational Church—was a kind of oddity in that particular time. Many Loyalists, while faithful to the crown in matters of politics, rejected the idea of the King being the head of the church. They saw God as sovereign, beyond the power of any human, even the King. So they became members in the Congregational Church, and as the country began tearing itself apart for the sake of “no taxation without representation,” members of this church continued to seek out the only real source of freedom, our mysterious sovereign God.
We don’t know a lot of specifics about that time in our history, but we do have artifacts that hint at how our church lived out their identity as God’s People throughout this time of violence and division. We know that the USS Raleigh, the first ship in the American Navy was built over on Badger’s Island, 2 miles away from our church, in 1775. Some of our communion silver was given
to us by William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and right next to it, on our communion table to this very day, is the silver given to us by William and Mary Pepperrell, Loyalist traitors to the Revolution. The silver wasn’t melted down and used in a different way, Mary Pepperrell wasn’t attacked, her house remains standing across the street from the church. At a time in our history when Loyalists were despised and terrorized throughout the colonies, as far as we can tell, they were welcome here. We also have proof that, around the same time, a free black man and his family were baptized in our sanctuary. Patriots—also known as Rebels—earned a living and forged a new life for themselves at the shipyard, Loyalists wondered if this new nation had anything awaiting them other than hatred and violence, free black folks, slaves, white Rebels….they were all welcome here. At a time when 1 in 5 free Americans were divided from one another—not just by ideology, but by war and violence— it appears that even then this sanctuary served as a place of rest and worship for anyone who walked through the doors.
Politics is not a bad word. It’s a Good Word. Our political culture happens to be rooted in division and violence…probably to be expected for a nation that had to fight and claw its way to freedom. It’s what we’ve known. But it doesn’t have to be anymore.
We can choose to remember that before we are anything, we are Beloved Children of God. All of us. We can choose to remember that the only reason for fighting that war in the first place was so that we can have control over how we arrange our shared life. The Founders and Framers did not intend for that power to be given to everyone. They did not intend for non-white, non-male, non-landowning people to have a say in how that shared life was arranged. But to paraphrase fictional President Jed Bartlet, “Thanks for trying…but here we are anyway.”
This is a country that has always vilified and attacked its political enemies. It’s created a political culture that has lost the confidence of the very people who are supposed to be in charge of it. And just like our brothers and sisters in Ancient Israel, God is speaking to us through the crisis, “You are free…you get to choose…and you have to live with your choice.”
The call is the same as it ever was: Love. Arrange the world so love–justice–can be shared among people and creation. If you can only do that by making enemies out of your neighbors, you’d do well to remember that we are called to LOVE our enemies as well.
The choice, in the end, isn’t about “them” at all. It’s about you. Do you choose to arrange our shared life by coercion and force, by silencing and driving out anyone who doesn’t agree with you…or are you willing to participate in a peaceful process that allows everyone to have a voice, and then continue working beyond election day to help with the project of arranging our shared life together?
It’s your vote. It’s your choice.