Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

Lent 3: The Politics of Sequester

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[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, focusing on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and popular literature, film, and artistic expression. Inquiries and submissions may be sent to david.true@wilson.edu.]

In the interest of full disclosure I’ll note at the outset that I am married to a federal government employee. The idiotic faux crisis of the sequester, like its recent precedents, is personal in our household. I read the end of the gospel passage for this week and think, “hell, they’ve put plenty of manure around this fig tree of Washington politics and it hasn’t produced fruit for years. Let’s cut the damned thing down.”

The problem with Washington politics is that nobody on the inside gets touched by the decisions made here no matter which way they go. The only thing felt by the decision makers is the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat in the great sport of power politics.

No. That’s the wrong metaphor, for what happens here is less like a game and more like an auction or, perhaps a casino. There are still winners and losers, but victory goes not to the winners of a game (which still implies a degree of merit) but rather to the one who can pay the highest price. The folks in this town – lawmakers, pundits, the entire insider class of powerbrokers – are perfectly content to eat the finest foods and drink the finest wines their money and power can procure, and they cannot conceive of the food and drink of which Isaiah speaks, much less receive the invitation he articulates. Never mind the invitation that Jesus always issues: “follow me.”

This is a nonpartisan, or, better, a bipartisan rant (thinly disguised as a lectionary blog post). While the Republicans bear an outsized share of the blame for the current political paralysis, both sides continuously show a perfectly balanced willingness to play politics with other peoples’ lives and livelihoods. Are today’s Republicans worse sinners than the Democrats? Maybe yes, maybe no. But unless all of us repent we will perish together.

Us? All of us? Well, yes. Along with a million other households, we sit here anticipating the seemingly inevitable furlough. While waiting to be victimized by the politics of the day it is incredibly tempting and overwhelmingly easy to blame it all on the politicians. I can recite that rant with the best of them!

That may be the biggest temptation of them all: to place blame. The politicians do it all the time. Blame for the deficit? It’s either the fault of the “takers” who receive various government entitlements or the “makers” who do not pay their fair share of taxes. I buy into that framing for one sentence for the sake of an easy rhyme, but the blame game is far from poetic. Blame the previous administration. Blame the banks. Blame the bureaucrats. Blame the military-industrial complex. Blame corporations. Blame the Supreme Court. Blame the pundits. Blame the president. Blame the one percent. Blame the 47 percent.

Nevertheless, the blame for a politics that produces no fruit, that spends our money for that which is not bread, and our labor for that which does not satisfy, falls on each of us. Blame the one-hundred percent.

The blame falls on each of us because politics is not reducible to the decision-making games of our dysfunctional national political institutions. Politics properly understood, is always larger than the squabbles between two parties beholden to moneyed interests. This must be true, all the more so, if we imagine that politics has something to do, however indirectly, with Jesus.

To practice the politics of Jesus means setting aside narrow political concerns – the creation of fake crises to win or lose – for a much broader understanding of politics. Politics, where Jesus is involved, is about the ways that power is exercised in the city for the purposes of justice and shalom. Such politics compels us to embody grace always, because power gets exercised in the city not just during Congressional contests, but in every single moment of every single day.

Take your daily bread, for an example pertinent to our texts from Isaiah, the psalms and 1 Corinthians: without getting into the nitty-gritty of food production, processing and so on, it is enough to say that the entire food system and agricultural economy is what it is – for better and for worse – because of the ways that power gets exercised in the city.

The politics of Jesus invites us to live each and every aspect of our lives with eyes wide open to the realities of the exercise of power, and to pay particular attention to those who are powerless or who are victims of power exercised without regard to justice and shalom – for power exercised without regard to God’s steadfast love (Psalm 63:3). The politics of Jesus is the embodiment of grace in the city – and city means wherever human beings live and move and have their being.

The church is to be the provisional embodiment of that grace lived out in community, and, therefore, the place where we teach, learn, experiment with a politics that aspires to reflect the head of the church. We embody grace in response to the grace that has been freely given us (as Paul reminds again). In receiving grace, we are called to respond in gratitude by living lives worthy of the calling we have received with that grace.

And, of course, all along the way we fall short, we are broken, we sin and we suffer.

The passage from Luke this week insists on two crucial and interrelated truths: first, no matter our politics or our faith, some things just happen to people. The fundamental truth we are reminded of in Lent – we are dust and to dust we shall return – is dependent neither on our political persuasion nor our moral turpitude. An accident at a construction site (Siloam, perhaps) can bring the tower down on the sinners and the saints. Hurricanes will wash away the good, the bad and the vast majority of us who inhabit places along the continuum. God makes the rain to fall of the just and the unjust. There is nothing of which to repent in the exigencies of life.

Jesus refuses (in Luke, but see also John 9:2) to make the easy connection between moral choice and suffering. He eschews the blame game. Yet he insists on repentance.

Our failure to repent still matters whenever, wherever and for whatever repentance is needed. It remains, in fact, a matter of life and death, according to Jesus (Luke 13-3).

Without repentance we cannot get beyond the gridlock of the present moment. We cannot get our minds beyond (metanohte, or repent, in Luke 13:3) the present time. We will continue to search merely for what can be purchased in the marketplace and not seek that which, Isaiah suggests, can only be had in the economy of the kingdom, beyond price, beyond sequester.

Interestingly, this word of the moment in Washington has its roots in the Latin sequi, to follow. The Latin sequester likely meant follower. Perhaps Jesus really would understand the politics of the present moment. I’m not saying that the disciples had anything to do with the first sequester, but I would  suggest that if our current politics involved a little more discipleship then those politics would involve a lot less blame shifting and a lot more repentance.

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  • http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/ Dave True

    Thanks for the post. I appreciate how you show the limited nature of our national politics and yet continue to hold out some hope for limited improvement. I especially like your words on repentance in this manner. Would you mind saying a bit more about what both sides of the debate should repent of? Also, I wonder if public repentance is really possible — any longer? — in our increasingly privatized society. Our politicians know how to do public confessions over sex scandals, but these seem to fall short of what you’re after. That said, is public repentance really necessary — as long as there is change? One can wonder the same things, it seems in the context of congregational life.