It is indeed an ugly thing when religious leaders, who claim to be guided by their allegiance to a Higher Authority in heaven, are indeed slaves to political ideologies that beat like waves, back and forth upon the face of the earth.
If people in the pews mean by their plea, “Keep politics out of the pulpit,” that preachers should snap out of their enthrallment to these dogmas, then I add my wholehearted support.
But there is no way to be faithful to the prophetic voice of Scripture without plunging headlong into politics if we understand that word in its broadest sense of the distribution of power among people.
This week’s (seventh Sunday after Pentecost) first and Gospel lessons are absolutely typical of Scripture in their political thrust.
According to Amos 7:7-15, the prophetic farmer from the southern kingdom of Judah speaks of his vision of the Lord with a plumb-line in his hand pointing out how a wall had been laid out of plumb. The Lord has a dispute with the people of the northern kingdom of Israel because they have followed their king, Jereboam, in the wrong direction. The ediface of political power in Israel has been built on a shoddy foundation of bad religion.
Next, the royally-approved priest, Amaziah, reports to the king that he is losing face and therefore losing the approval rating of his people as long as words like this from Amos get out. Amos, Amaziah tells the King, is a conspiracy of one who must be stopped. Amaziah, typical of all who benefit from the distorted use of power, protects the status quo by attempting to silence all opposition. He addresses Amos as though he were a godly gun for hire, just as he himself is. But Amos is a true prophetic voice, speaking God’s truth to power.
Then, from Mark 6 we have the famous story of the beheading of John the Baptist. Herod Antipas is feeling his political power being amped up by the power of his own testosterone as he watches his step-daughter dance; so he makes a flamboyant and public promise to give the girl anything, up to half his kingdom. Her mother, who has a grudge against the Baptist, surely because of his very public disapproval of her marriage to Antipas, urges the daughter to ask for the immediate delivery of the head of John on a platter. Now Antipas is caught. He finds this demand disgusting (Does he have within his heart a germ of moral and religious compunctions after all?) but he has made such a grand gesture to show off his power, now he cannot risk losing face (any more than Jereboam, centuries before).
Political power is always precarious. It depends on perception. And perceptions is fickle and very easily manipulated.
Politics is about the distribution of power. Power involves authority. One of the grand political themes of the Bible is authority. True authority comes from character, and this, in turn, must be built on the fear of the Lord. Only when we humbly stand before God, ready to be honest with our mistakes and our failures and ready to be corrected and brought back on the line of obedience and faithfulness, can we be open to the wisdom and courage that allows us to be righteous and true leaders. Without this we operate out of a fear of being found out. Authoritarians know they are hiding the truth, and they become abusive. They sink deeper and deeper into authoritarianism, trying to force others into compliance rather than inviting them, through example, into imitation and willing faithfulness.
Jereboam, Herod Antipas and Herodias are authoritarians—despots who desperately hold to power by silencing critics. Their kingdoms are built on fear and are doomed to crumble. Amos and John the Baptist have authority. They may seem to be weak and vulnerable, yet kings and queens tremble at their words and before their character of faithfulness.
This is the kind of political lesson we need to heed, for we see everywhere examples of political and religious leaders who are very short on authority but very long on authoritarianism. They always wind up trying to coerce or deceive their way into more power rather than offering up humble character and good examples to follow.