When Theology Challenges Ideology
"As pastors, it's our job to provide theology, not ideology." Rev. Cameron Barr, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Several years ago, I preached a sermon in which I said something that seemed completely obvious to me. It was a simple statement that came out of my mouth quite naturally, having begun as a concept in my mind formed directly out of my own experience in the world. I said, "The American free market economy teaches us to place a numerical value on all things." That's it. That's what I said. I don't even remember what the sermon was about...but I know that I said the exact phrase above because a gentleman came up to me after church and wanted to talk about that specific statement. And we talked about it for the better part of an hour. The gentleman who approached me--a long time member of the church, a man I greatly admired--wanted to know, "Why are you disparaging capitalism from the pulpit? Where in the Bible does it say capitalism is a bad thing? I challenge you to tell me what a more ethical economic system would be." I spent the better part of an hour trying to say, "I wasn't disparaging capitalism, nor was I promoting an alternative economic system. I simply said that capitalism teaches us to put a numeric value on everything." Again, I don't remember what the sermon was about, but I imagine I was trying to teach about how God's love works. God's love does not seem to be based on merit...we are not loved as we deserve, we are loved MORE than we deserve. I imagine I was trying to make the comparison between how we 21st Century Americans place a value on all things--including people--because our economic system has taught us to do that...but God does not value in that same way. And, for me, that was and is just the way it is...it's no more controversial an opinion than saying the sky is blue. And this one statement that seemed totally obvious to me, sent my beloved parishioner into a spiral of anger, because what he heard me saying was that I hate our country and I'm out to make him feel bad.
This happens from time to time. In most American churches, there is perceived to be a very delicate line separating the territory that is acceptable for a preacher to comment on (popularly thought of as a mix of God, theology, Bible, history, morality, and Good News) from the expansive region of things that should be "off the table" for a Sunday morning sermon (most notably, anything that smells like "politics"). Again, I see this simply as a fact. We may not all agree on where this delicate, imaginary line is drawn. For some of us, we would be happy to include some politics, as long as it is "our" politics. For others of us, we would make sure the line gets drawn in a way that includes basic do's and don'ts of morality...but maybe some of us would rather not include anything that would reveal our own moral shortcomings or every-day addictions. And if you get 100 people in a room--which is not uncommon for us at our church--it's entirely possible that we have close to 100 different ideas about where this line should be drawn. We all seem to agree that there are things that "belong" in church and in a sermon, and things that definitely don't. What we may not have is a unanimous consensus about which is which.
This is why I find my colleague's insight so helpful. Rev. Cameron Barr of North Carolina said to me just a few months ago, "People come to us for theology, not ideology." We are here to offer reflections on God and the universe as God constructed it...not here to tell you how to live your life. We speak what we know to be true, the Good News that God loves us too much to ever let us go, and to extrapolate on what that Good News means for our entire lives. What anyone sitting in our congregations does or does not do with that News is entirely up to each individual person...and when we find the things that we do have consensus around...that is where we begin to become Christ's Church.
But there are times when our theological understanding can challenge the ideologies we have learned and adopted in other areas of our lives. And that can be, truly, challenging...for us as individuals...for us as church...for us as a country.
For example, about a year ago I mentioned in a sermon that there was a pastor who served this very church in the mid 1800's who the church asked to leave because they felt his sermons were far too political. The pastor in question was named Rev. Toby Miller, and the political cause he was preaching about was the Abolition movement. His theological understanding was that God did not support the institution of slavery, so he said so. This theological take bothered the good people of our church and in 1841, they asked him to leave. How do we understand this episode from our church's past? Is this an example of a pastor who overstepped his preaching boundaries and started trying to turn the church's pulpit into a political platform? Or is this an example of theology challenging the ideologies of particular people in the church...and not enjoying the experience of being challenged?
It's entirely possible that it's a little of both.
It's important to look at this event in the life of our historic church, and allow it to offer us some questions for how we live together and make decisions today: Do we see the topic of slavery as off limits in our worship life today? Do we believe slavery is entirely a political issue, or is there reason to think that our understanding of theology also speaks to the need to preserve the humanity of all people, regardless of the color of their skin? Are there issues equivalent to slavery in our own time that our theological understanding calls into question? Do we choose to question these things together, or is that too unsettling? What is our reaction when theology challenges our ideology? What is our reaction when political figures try to challenge our theology with their own ideology?
Last week, while I was out of the country, the Attorney General of the United States claimed that Paul's letter to the Romans supports our government's current policy of Zero Tolerance along our southern border with Mexico. For people of faith, there is an important issue at stake here: The Bible--like the best preachers and pastors--is to be used for theology...not ideology. If you take a particular line of Romans 13 completely out of context, and only read it on its own, it reads like this, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God (Romans 13: 1)." That one sentence on its own could be used to argue for or against just about any law, any government, any ideology of your choice. It could be used to support the Attorney General, just as much as it could be used against his claim. If you are out to use the Bible to defend your particular ideology, then you will never run out of single verses that can be clipped and separated from their original context to try and support your own ideological position. This is why reading the Bible, like living a life of faith, is complicated business. Wherever it seems to support one particular ideology, read a few sentences further and you'll see that it contradicts that claim.
But when we turn to the Bible for theology--the study of God, and all matters related to God--we aren't allowed to take anything out of context. It is always our job to understand the words, sentences, writings and teachings within their original context as best we are able. This is because our God is not an abstract concept, or a philosophical talking point. God is only known through Covenant...relationship...context. If we're going to try to really understand Paul's theological argument in Romans 13: 1, then we have to look at the rest of Romans 13 and the rest of the letter as well. When we pull back far enough to see that, we read just a few sentences later, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore LOVE is the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13: 10)." Sure, God ordains humans to create and uphold the law...but the best fulfillment of the law is in doing "no wrong" to a neighbor...LOVE of Neighbor is the fulfillment of the law. This means that any law that is ordained by God is going to begin in doing no harm to another, and it is going to end in loving our neighbors as ourselves.
All of us are entitled to our opinions...and our own ideologies. But this is one of those moments where theology is going to push against the ideology of Attorney General Sessions and his colleagues doing the work of protecting our borders. The Bible does not get to dictate the laws of our country...and our theological understanding of God revealed through the sacred scriptures and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ--an immigrant himself, put to death by the state and the church--challenges the laws and policies that governments--including the United States Government--would want to create.
Slavery used to be the law in our country. Jim Crow used to be the law in our country. It used to be against the law for women to vote. At one time, it was against the law to skip church on Sunday mornings. Laws change. God does not.
May our search for clear theological understanding, our quest to perceive God and to be God's People in this place always take us above and beyond our personal ideologies and individual preferences. May our search always bring us closer to our neighbor, reveal more love in our lives and in the world, and may God be present with the poor, the outcast, the orphaned, the widowed, the refugee, the immigrant, and the American citizen as we pray and strive to find God's Kingdom on Earth "as it is in heaven." Amen.