Progressive Christians, and the role of faith in politics

By Reverend Chuck Currie of Portland, Oregon. Chuck is the interim minister at Parkrose Community United Church of Christ in Northeast Portland. Learn more at his blog.

This week, Christians across the globe are celebrating Holy Week. In doing so we remember the darkest day of our tradition – Good Friday – when Jesus is brutally put to death by Rome and the good news of Easter... that death is not the end of the story.

On Palm Sunday, I preached about the political nature of Jesus' arrest and execution by the Roman Empire. Jesus was killed not (as Mel Gibson might have you believe) by Jews but by the Romans who saw his message of peace and justice as a threat to their hold on power.

God calls us to be a people of justice (Micah 6:8). Jesus himself tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:28-34). We are compelled as Christians to be active in the world. My own advocacy on behalf of those who are homeless and in support of efforts to end the war, as examples, comes out of my faith in the Prince of Peace.

Politics and the Christian faith have always been intertwined. Jesus was a political figure as much as a religious one.

So what is the appropriate role for churches to play in the political arena today?

In my view there are limitations to the separation of church and state.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not arguing ala Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell in favor of an American-style theocracy. In fact, I believe that churches should – as is required by law – stay out of partisan politics. But the United Methodist Church is correct when it asserts:

For people of faith, therefore, there are no political or spiritual spheres where their participation can be denied. The attempt to influence the formation and execution of public policy at all levels of government is often the most effective means available to churches to keep before humanity the ideal of a society in which power and order are made to serve the ends of justice and freedom for all people....

...This task of the Church is in no way in contradiction with our commitment to a vital separation of Church and State. We believe that the integrity of both institutions is best served when both institutions do not try to control the other. Thus, we sustain with the first amendment to the Constitution that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” We live in a pluralistic society. In such a society, churches should not seek to use the authority of government to make the whole community conform to their particular moral codes. Rather, churches should seek to enlarge and clarify the ethical grounds of public discourse and to identify and define the foreseeable consequences of available choices of public policy.

But the Religious Right has gone wrong by equating one political party over another with the Kingdom of God. God is not a Republican... or a Democrat, as Jim Wallis likes to say.

Progressive Christians must avoid making the same mistake. We are to serve God's interests – not the state's, nor those of any political party. Yet it is totally appropriate for the church to be involved with the political (i.e. social) issues of the day.

And so, as I recall the pain of Good Friday and praise God for the gift of Easter, I remember that the church is only relevant if it seeks to bring reconciliation and justice to a world torn apart and suffering just as Jesus did on the cross. That is our call from God.

All are welcome at Easter Sunday service at 10 am on April 8th at Parkrose Community United Church of Christ.

Comments

  • Phil Jones (unverified)
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    IMO, churches should all pay income and property taxes. Then they could be as politically involved as any other entertainment enterprise.

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    I hope you vociferously speak out against other "Christians" who target non-heterosexuals for discrimination (thankfully your church is not intolerant and is welcoming of GLBT people), particularly since Jesus is nowhere quoted as saying anything at all against non-heterosexuals, but spoke a ton about helping the poor, turning the other cheek, not judging others, and being 100% against violence and war.

  • Scott in Damascus (unverified)
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    After just reading the new book about Dobson and Focus on the Family and watching "Jesus Camp" I would have to respectfully say "none."

    I don't want my church in government nor do I want government in my church.

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    lestatdelc,

    The United Church of Christ has a long history of supporting gays and lesbians. We were the first mainline church to ordian an openly gay man back in the early 70s and in 2005 our General Synod endorsed gay marriage - making us the only mainline church in the US to do so.

    CC

  • Rev. Chuck Currie (unverified)
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    Scott in Damascus,

    I've had my own run-ins with Focus on the Family. They want you to think they represent Christ - but all they really represent is the Republican Party. You let the Religious Right win the debate if you accept their claim that to be Christian is to be conservative.

    CC

  • BlueNote (unverified)
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    The Democratic party has embraced and benefited from tens of millions of Irish, Italian, Polish and home-grown Catholics over the past 100 years or so. I am one of them.

    I see little to be gained by posting articles dealing with religion on this or any other progressive site. Most of us US Catholics more or less ignore the Pope when it comes to birth control, abortion and equal rights for gays. But if you push us by making broad statements and condemnations regarding our religion and our heritage, we will react. In most cases, our reaction will be to say F* Y to the Dems and to join the Repubs. From my perspective, that would be very bad.

    So, Happy Easter to all, and vote Dem!

  • (Show?)

    I left Christianity years ago for a number of personal reasons--not the least of which was the authoritarian nature of the sect that my family practices. The efforts of that sect and others to permeate government have been deeply disturbing to me.

    Reverend Currie is one of the few Christian leaders that I regularly pay attention to. I respect his honesty and his compassion--as well as his very important efforts to understand those of us who aren't Christians.

    I also appreciate that there are Christian leaders who work to unite us--and speak out against those both religious and non-religious who seek to divide us.

    I agree that Christians have a role to play when it comes to the discussion of politics. But I think its crucial that leaders such as Rev. Currie continue to talk about exactly what this means.

  • Brian Swarts (unverified)
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    As the director of a local organization, the Oregon Center for Christian Values, whose mission is to activate Christians to live out the values of the gospel I agree that faith can have a very positive role in public life. If ALL Oregon Christians really started living out the biblical values of caring for the poor, caring for sick, and caring for God's creation, we would see our state change for the better. Most recently, the movie "Amazing Grace," about the life of British abolitionist William Wilberforce, has reminded Christians that our central responsibility as citizens is to be a voice of conscience and to declare the vision for the common good that we find in words of our own scriptures.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    They want you to think they represent Christ - but all they really represent is the Republican Party.

    I think it is important to distinguish the Republican churches from the Christian Churches, including many evangelical Christian Churches who condemn homesexuality and abortion and have a large numbers of Republicans members. I don't agree with them or the politics of many of their members, but they are legitimate expressions of faith.

    On the other hand, Pat Robertson followed his father into politics and created his "church" as a means of building his political base. He has been joined by a significant number of other phony Christians who are really just preaching the gospel of privilege and the politics of hate. They use "Christian" as a popular brand name like Disney. Too bad Christ didn't trademark his name.

    You will find many of the traditional Christian churches on the front lines of battles for equality and justice. You won't find many food banks that aren't dependent on people of faith. Nor many low income advocacy groups who don't draw their support from faith based organizations.

    Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez were both people of faith.

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    Ross,

    I agree. The quote you took from me was specifically in reference to the Religious Right – groups like Focus on the Family, etc. There are, of course, many conservative evangelicals who do not use their churches in the same way James Dobson and company have done (in support of partisan political efforts). As you note, there is a difference between evangelical churches and the Religious Right.

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    Posted by: Rev. Chuck Currie | Apr 5, 2007 12:59:28 PM

    Aware of that, which I indicated (though not well enough it seems) when I mentioned that your church is welcoming of GLBT people. I just think that of the divisive social topics which the Religious-Wrong and the GOP use for political wedge issues, this one is where I think that progressive people of faith can do the most good in not ceding the ground of "morality" to the bigotry and politics employed by the Fright-Wing.

    After all, the fact I am an atheist makes me immediately dismissible in the eyes of large swaths of the population who base their objections on twisted biblical interpretations and faux "traditional values". (bittersweet/wry grin)

  • Jonathan (unverified)
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    I think it's incorrect to believe that conservative Christians (or fundamentalists) are always lock-step Republicans. I predict we'll be seeing a growing schism as Mitt Romney's stature increases. The Conservative Baptists I was raised with would vote for a lot of Democrats before they would vote for a Mormon. While my efforts to appeal to fundamentalists on social justice issues as being truly Christian often seems to fall on deaf ears, IMHO, Democrats won't have to lift a finger for this rift to take root in the next year.

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    Jonathan,

    I agree and said so above:

    http://www.blueoregon.com/2007/04/progressive_chr.html#c65498312

    CC

  • Varma Radha Gahamdy (unverified)
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    Hasan Rahimpur Azghadi: After the publication of the cartoons and the malicious affront to the Prophet, I went to Denmark to attend a seminar. I talked with them in order to do the very least I can to defend the honor and sanctity of the Prophet. I said to them: You claim that Islam was spread by the sword? Firstly, it was Christianity that was spread everywhere by the sword. Europe was Christianized out of fear of the swords of the Roman Empire. The American continent was Christianized by the European armies and battleships that attacked and occupied it. Africa was Christianized by the colonial armies of the 18th and 19th centuries. Where have Muslims ever accepted Islam under threat of the sword? Is it conceivable for a person to convert to Islam out of fear of the sword, only to lose his life because of the affront to the Prophet? At least 100 Muslims were killed in the protests against the cartoons of the Prophet. Was such devotion created by the power of the sword? When, in his book, the evil Salman Rushdie, offended the honor of the Prophet's wives, the mothers of the believers, and the Imam [Khomeini] said that killing this evil man is permitted, that whoever kills him is a martyr, and that even the publishers of this book should be killed... I said that this faith caused many Sunnis and Shiites to carry out operations that led to their martyrdom. There were some young Lebanese men who were unable [to kill Rushdie], but got martyred. Did we become Muslims by the sword?! Was all the culture, science, love between Shiites and Sunnis, and devotion to the Prophet and the Koran created by the sword? It was you who became Christian by the sword.

    ~WEM (WORSHIP EARTH :~: MUD)

  • IanofRisen (unverified)
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    Faith has no place in politics, just look where it has gotten us today. As soon as we start mixing beliefs and guesses into society it becomes merely a matter of time before rulers assert themselves as prophets or messengers of God... Sound familiar?

  • ellie (unverified)
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    We believe that the integrity of both institutions [church and state] is best served when both institutions do not try to control the other.

    That pretty much says it all. When one entity tries to assert more power over the other, trouble arises for both.

    As skeptical as I may be about religion at times, I am comforted when I see those using their faith to do good works. It is unfortunate that too often vocal "believers" choose to focus on issues that tear people apart rather than build community. I would like to think charity and justice are core values of most religions; the world would be a better place if more people emphasized those "morals" as the good Reverend has shared with us.

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    IanofRisen wrote:

    Faith has no place in politics, just look where it has gotten us today.

    Religion has often done great things for the world. America's civil rights movement, for example, was a religious led movement. Just ask The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

  • Gary Aknos (unverified)
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    As usual, Chuck likes to reference Falwell and Robertson but fails to mention his own denomination, the UCC, when it accepts state money in a clear violation of law. Even Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (and a UCC minister!) said he was "concerned" about what the UCC was doing. Full story at UCCtruths.com.

  • Gary Aknos (unverified)
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    Chuck could also use some more theology classes.

    Pilate could have cared less about Jesus and there's not a single line in the Gospels to suggest Pilate was scared of Jesus at all or even considered him a threat.

    The Pharisees were the ones that condemned Jesus and trumped up charges against him - Luke 23:3. Pilate even hesitated to condemn Jesus... until the crowd insists. This isn't a Mel Gibson movie, this is the Bible.

    Further, Christ never - NOT ONCE - ever challenged Rome. The implications of Christ not mixing politics and religion are obvious to honest readers of the Bible... but not to those like Chuck who want to use the Bible as a tool for political manipulation.

  • Garrett (unverified)
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    Dead on Gary. Pilate could have cared less about Jesus. The Pharisees wanted him dead. He was arrested by temple guards on the orders of the Sanhedrin. He was tried by the Sanhedrin and then turned over to Pilate. They accused him of trying to start a revolution. Pilate offered to free either Jesus or the murderer Barabbas. The crowd freed Barabbas and Pilate washed his hands of the situation because he knew it was unjust. Pilate refused to stand up to the crowd but probably avoided an insurrection by allowing the crowd's wishes. The Pharisees were Jewish (sort of). I consider them a lot like the evangelicals of today. I grew up in an evangelical church so I can assure you that the arrogance involved in being an evangelical is probably on par with that of being a pharisee.

    I also don't recall Christ ever challenging Rome...I might be wrong...I quit attending church 10 years ago and haven't done much Bible reading recently. I will disagree with the assertation that Chuck is using the Bible for political manipulation. I don't think that was his intent at all. James Dobson and Pat Robertson use the Bible for political manipulation much like the Pharisees used God's word to incite a crowd in their day.

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    Just ignore this Gary Aknos fellow. He is a troll who follows me around from site to site offering up hate for me and unfounded remarks about the United Church of Christ. The site he refers you to is one operated by people who work closey with the ultra right-wing Institute on Religion and Democracy.

  • JohnH (unverified)
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    I'd encourage everyone to keep an eye out for Melody Barnes' interview on C-SPAN with Obery Hendricks, who wrote "The Politics of Jesus." In my mind Christianity was forever corrupted when St. Augustine made it the official religion of Rome, and Christians accepted the offer. After that, Christianity become a tool of the rich and powerful, diametrically contradicting its roots as a force for the poor and dispossed. Hendricks looks at Jesus' actions, which make him an inspirational figure, not latter day interpretations, which often remove the faithful from meaningful social engagement.

    Here's the link the to yesterday's program: http://inside.c-spanarchives.org:8080/cspan/cspan.csp?command=dprogram&record=551850616

    Have and Active Easter!

  • Gary Aknos (unverified)
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    HA HA! Chuck says "The site he refers you to is one operated by people who work closey with the ultra right-wing Institute on Religion and Democracy."

    Thats how he avoids actually dealing with his own lies about Jesus... by creating new lies about people who call him out.

  • Gary Aknos (unverified)
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    Garret & John: I agree with you 100%. It's not just the religious right though, check out the religious left too.

  • Gary Aknos (unverified)
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    I don't care if it the religious righ or the religious left - none of us should want anyone's religion directly infused into the government.

    It's completely indefensible and hypocritical to be against Falwell, Robertson or any of the religious loons on the right only to have them replaced by religious loons on the left.

  • Garrett (unverified)
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    Chuck, I've got nothing against the UCC just so you know. I was just saying that Gary happened to be right when asserting that the Romans really didn't have much to do with the death of Jesus. They allowed it to happen and they performed the crucifixion but it was the pharisees on the Sanhedrin that demanded his death. The Romans really could have cared less. Thats all I was saying. Just to make this clear...I am not blaming the Jews...I would place blame on the pharisees who were pretty much a political sect.

    Gary...I really don't care about your UCC website. You're getting away from Chuck's point of the church staying out of politics and politics staying out of the church. He's right on that one.

  • Pete (unverified)
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    This is not God--there is absolutely no evidence for him. People who believe in him are gullible fools.

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    Thanks, Garrett, for your clarification.

    The Jews did not kill Jesus. Crucifixion was a political act carried out only by the Romans to silence their critics. Unfortunately, many have blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus (a view reinforced by the Gibson film).

    I laid out more of my thoughts on Rome’s role in my sermon from Psalm Sunday: God vs. Rome. Check it out if you’re interested.

  • screwtape (unverified)
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    Rev.:

    I personally agree with much of what you say about the role of Christians and their faith in the secular realm, but I fear much of your commentary about the political alliance between conservative Christians and the Republican party lack credibility.

    At what conservative blog did you also submit your essay? I've scanned a few and have yet to see it. Were you summarily rejected? Or are you indeed just as guilty of political alignment by submitting your thoughts to this very Democrat-friendly site?

    I think the latter, and that's unfortunate.

  • screwtape (unverified)
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    And one other thing, Rev. Currie.

    The "Jews" or more specifically the Pharisees did indeed not kill Jesus - the act was committed by the Romans as you say. Just a tree is guilty of killing the drunk driver behind the wheel after impact.

    But only the most revisionist of opinions would fail to attribute the Pharisees - a sect of Judaism - with some blame for the progression of events, not unlike the alcohol the driver abused before stepping into his car.

    And in the end blame is meaningless because the submission to the brutality was one of divine choice. But you're doing no favors to the historical truth of the matter by whitewashing out of fear to offend.

  • RuthAlice Anderson (unverified)
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    If those of us who are non-believers want to cast all people of faith out of the progressive tent, we would be in a pretty small tent.

    Religion has been the foundation of much progressive social change - from abolition to civil rights to the War on Poverty. Religion has played a positive role. Unfortunately, progressive religious institutions have stepped back from movement politics to focus more on personal spiritual growth. Meanwhile, the religious institutions of the right were moving in the opposite direction and have filled that vacuum in the political sphere. It's up to their progressive co-religionists to stand up and denounce their interpretation, not us secularists. You need to police your own.

    Additionally, people of faith need to be the one's arguing in the media that abortion and sexuality are no more religious issues than are poverty and racism. You can't rely on us secularists to do it for you, because then it becomes a false choice between faith and unbelief -- when really its a choice between decency and indecency.

    Besides,if we were honest, it's not religious faith that we have a problem with; it's how faith is used to trump reason and all the rules of civil discourse. Faith has become the "because I said so" of modern political conversation. We are just frustrated by trying to reason with folks who refuse to engage on the field of rationality and rely on "I know what I believe" to excuse misogyny, homophobia and other belligerant intolerances. You might as well try arguing with a sponge. What we secularists need to learn is how to pick our battles.

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    screwtape wrote:

    And in the end blame is meaningless because the submission to the brutality was one of divine choice.

    With all due respect, I not a fan of substitutionary atonement - the idea that God needed (or allowed) Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. What a cruel God you would have to believe in to follow that line of thinking.

    When I hear that I always reflect back on the sermon The Rev. William Sloane Coffin gave just days after his son was killed in a car accident. He said:

    For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths — I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist — yes, even an Eternal Vivisector. But violent deaths, such as the one Alex died — to understand those is a piece of cake. As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, "You blew it, buddy. You blew it." The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

    God suffered with Christ on the cross as well. But Jesus was not a sacrifice required by God.

  • Felder of Zion (unverified)
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    All right. We did it. We killed Jesus, and we are responsible for every war in the world (Mel Gibson has been vilified for our sins).

    We also view you "believers" as contemptible, self-serving morons. Any of you who are so certain of every "historical" fact of this small event that supposedly happened thousands of years ago deserve George Bush and Nancy Pelosi.

  • screwtape (unverified)
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    Rev. Currie:

    Thank you for your honesty re: your position towards your own personal theology.

    But I have to say - I'm not necessarily a fan of rainy winters, but those are the facts on the ground in western Oregon and you deal with it accordingly.

    But that leaves me puzzled: if your theological position is one against "substitutionary atonement" then the only logical conclusion is that God is even more brutal than you realize.

    If the crucifixion has has no theological implications for the believer, then you're basically saying God - if you acknowledge one as omnipotent and omniscient - basically let his son, if you believe in that orthodox notion, die a cruel death for absolutely no reason at all.

    Now THAT is a cruel God that YOU have, dubious theology aside. So why celebrate Easter? What's the point of inviting all of these seemingly good readers to your Christian church? Why call it a Christian church if there's really no theological or conciliatory implication of the death of Jesus. Let me guess: your answer is that Jesus was a great teacher/rabbi of hope, reconciliation and forgiveness.

    Well many people feel Steven Covey to be a good teacher, why not encourage everyone to meet you at the mall to celebrate his self-help books? And no yucky, untidy martyr death to deal with.

    Have a happy Easter, to the extent it has theological meaning for you.

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    ….if your theological position is one against "substitutionary atonement" then the only logical conclusion is that God is even more brutal than you realize…

    Perhaps there is more logic out there then you are aware of.

    God is not Superman, flying off to save the day.

    Does the death of Jesus have meaning? Does the resurrection? Yes, of course.

    But no one has to conform to your theological interpenetrations to find meaning in those events.

    Feel free to visit my site tomorrow and read my Easter sermon or better yet come and worship with us.

    No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here.

  • Danny Haszard (unverified)
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    A heads up on the Jehovah Witnesses

    The core dogma of the Watchtower organization is that Jesus had his second coming 'invisibly' in the year 1914.Their entire doctrinal superstructure is built on this falsehood.

    There is good and valid reasons why there is such an outrage against the Watchtower for misleading millions of followers.Many have invested everything in the 'imminent' apocalyptic promises of the Jehovah's Witnesses and have died broken and beaten. The Watchtower has billions in assets and not one charity. Danny Haszard

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