Christ, Christianity and Politics

I do not usually post religious, theological or spiritually-oriented material in this blog. I save it for my other blog. However this column by Bishop John Shelby Spong does a magnificent job of explaining the link between faith, spirituality and politics. It is a good response to my friends and critics who ask how I can claim to be both non-theistic, that is not believe in a supernatural “god” and still call myself a Christian. My answer is that I find the stories of Jesus in the Gospels to be one magnificent model (not the only one) on which to base my life. Especially Matthew 25.

Many folk read the newspapers and see how religion has invaded politics in a bid for conservative, right-wing, anti-women, anti-sex, anti-intelligence authoritarianism. But this is not the only form of religion. It is doctrinal, cultic religion. There are better forms of religion exemplified by some Buddhists, Quakers, Uniterian Universalists, some Pagans, some Muslims, etc. They just don’t often make the newspapers in this corporate dominated media atmosphere.

Bishop Spong explains this ever so much better than I do. I recommend going to Dr. Spong’s website to read this and his other articles.

A Political Q and A

From time to time I receive a letter which requires an answer that is too long for the question and answer format of this column, so I have to use it as the column itself. Such is the case this week, so I will interrupt my Matthew series for a week to respond to this question. JSS

Gavin Young, from Las Vegas via the Internet, writes:

I have said before in response to some of your columns and I will say it again, you need to stay out of politics and stick with theology. I can’t believe the misinformation about and defense and support for our current Celebrity-in-Chief, BHO (Barack Hussein Obama) aka Barry Soetoro. First of all, the President has NO AUTHORITY other than what he’s given himself to initiate a war. He/She MUST HAVE Congress’s approval. In what can only be described as a patronizing speech, BHO asserted FIRST OF ALL, that he has the right and authority to start a war or attack Syria WITHOUT Congress’s approval. He then went on to say that he would allow Congress its opinion as a gesture of “good will,” but again, he reiterated that the authority rests solely with him. Really? Witness the recent barricades around the people’s monuments in DC or the cancellation of the Army/Navy football game. BHO has no right to perpetrate such acts. Bishop Spong, please wake up and get real about this “President.” No presidency has been so shrouded in secrecy from its very beginning. BHO is very quickly becoming a dictator and history is repeating itself. What are you going to do when you wake up one morning and we’re under martial law and all your Constitutional rights have been stripped? When you’re no longer allowed to write your column or books because you’re a Christian? At last count, President Obama has committed at least 13 impeachable acts during his presidency yet no one stands up to him. When is a law not a law? When BHO says it is or it isn’t. I am frightened for our country, very frightened. Please get more information (i.e. the other side of the story) before making pronouncements in favor of BHO. Have you ever asked yourself why BHO’s aka, Barry Soetoro, is registered to vote at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? And what about the fact that his long form birth certificate is now well known to be a complete forgery? And as far as trying to curtail our debt, well the facts speak for themselves. When the national debt reaches $20 trillion, our economy will implode within a few hours. May God forbid that ever happens. The USA is already #16 in best countries to live in. What’s up with that? And what caused it? I love you dearly, Bishop, and am a HUGE fan of yours (please come to Las Vegas), but you really need to become as well informed about politics as you are about theology and biblical interpretation.

Dear Gavin,

I really love it when I get a letter like yours, filled as it is with prejudice, veiled racism and profound ignorance and you want me to stay out of politics and stick with theology? Then in an act of rare hubris you not only accuse me of “misinformation,” but you then proceed to illustrate your charge with the most egregious expression of right wing extremism I have read in a long time! So let me respond to your tirade with as much rationality as I can muster.

Do you want me to stay out of politics so that your feelings about politics will not be challenged? What is your understanding of being a Christian? Have you ever read the Bible? When Jesus sums up the Law, the Torah, he does so by exhorting us to love God and to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke has Jesus define our neighbor as a Samaritan, the object of the deepest Jewish prejudice in that era. So, how do I love my neighbor? It seems to me that one does that by opposing all the things that dehumanize a fellow human being. What does that mean politically? It means one works against slavery, against segregation and against any other form of social prejudice. It means one works for equal pay for women. One works to see that women have equal access to higher education, equal opportunity in every area of society from religion to the military, to equal opportunity in business success. It means that one opposes everything that holds up the glass ceiling on women’s aspirations and to be either the President of the United States or the Pope. It means that one builds a basic dignity into the social fabric of this nation which mandates that a safety net will always be present in our national life beyond which no one is allowed to fall. It means that one works for an equitable tax policy that will not allow the wealthy so many loopholes, which only they can exploit, so that they wind up paying a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than do their secretaries or maintenance personnel. It means that one works to remove discriminatory laws against gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people. It means that one seeks to provide adequate health care for all citizens whether they can afford it or not. It means that one does not allow workers to be exploited or to work in unsafe conditions. It means that society adopts a minimum wage high enough to allow one who works full time to be able to live on his/her pay. It means that one does not allow an economic system to develop that grinds away until 90% of the wealth of this nation is in the hands of one percent of the population. Those are the ways we follow the mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves!

This kind of society does not just happen it is created by the decision-making bodies elected to govern the corporate society. That is what the political process is. Do you really think that because one has a religious perspective one should be disqualified to speak out on political decision making? Can worship be separated from justice and still have any integrity?

Your hostility toward the president of the United States, a man elected handily in 2008 and re-elected by a margin of more that 5,000,000 votes on 2012, would be laughable if it were not so distorted! “Our Celebrity-in-Chief?” You sound jealous! Your use of BHO (Barack Hussein Obama)) and Barry Soetoro” as names for the president reveals your pettiness. Your suggestion that he has no authority to initiate a war is out of touch with the facts of history. Presidents, as commander in chief, have always had the right and the duty to respond with force when the nation’s people or our vital interests have been attacked. In 1950 President Truman responded to an attack by the forces of North Korea on our ally South Korea, with whom we had a mutual defense treaty. People called it not a war, but “a police action,” but it cost this nation 50,000 members of the armed forces and caused us to commit a huge army in the field, first commanded by Douglas MacArthur, later by Matthew Ridgeway and during that “police action” this nation carried out a full scale invasion by sea at Inchon. The Korean War did not begin with a declaration of war by Congress, but with the decision of the President. Yes, under the Constitution, only the Congress can declare war, but the Commander-in-Chief has to respond to an attack when it occurs. Waiting until the legislative body can act is not always possible.

This president, whom you disparage so crudely, has stopped a war in Iraq, he is winding down a war in Afghanistan and he was able by using the threat of war to get Syria to dismantle and to destroy its arsenal of chemical weapons without a war. Your lack of knowledge about the history of this nation is substantial. Ignorance is not a sin, but it does disqualify you from being taken seriously by me or anyone else.

Your rhetoric reaches levels of mental disorientation when you talk about Mr. Obama becoming a dictator, by suggesting that he is guilty of 13 impeachable acts, by suggesting that his administration has been shrouded in secrecy and by talking about one’s constitutional rights being stripped away. Your rhetoric sounds like the paranoid elements of the NRA that seem to think that a required background check before one can purchase a gun is tantamount to stripping us of our constitutional rights. Every single one of the world’s great democracies except the United States requires a background check for gun ownership. The universal result of that requirement is not the loss of a constitutional right, but the significant lowering of the murder rate in those nations. For you to claim that the birth certificate of this president is “well known to be a complete forgery” is to reveal that you no longer live in a world of rationality.

You tell me that I am not qualified to speak on non-theological issues. I do not know the basis upon which you make that statement, but let me do something that I seldom do in order to call your thinking into question. Let me share with you my credentials that qualify me to participate publicly in the political debate in our nation. I have engaged in a life long study of both history and politics. I have written a weekly column for 14 years that seeks to explore and to illumine every area of human life. As a national columnist I have been credentialed to be part of the press corps attending the national political nominating conventions on two occasions. I have interviewed major political figures. I have been interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, William F. Buckley, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Charles Gibson, Kathleen Sullivan, Peter Jennings, Bill Maher and many others. I have read biographies of every president of the United States. I have traveled to most of the nations of the world. I hold seven honorary doctorates from major universities in America. I was elected to be the Quatercentenary scholar at Emmanuel College of Cambridge University in England in 1991 and chosen to be the William Belden Noble Lecturer at Harvard University in 2000. My portrait was commissioned to be painted and to hang in the “Hall of Honor” at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapel at Morehead College in Atlanta for my contributions to civil and human rights. I believe I have earned the right to be part of my nation’s political debate. You certainly have the right to disagree with me on any issue, but I have serious questions about whether you have earned the right to stand in judgment on me.

I’m glad you are “a huge fan.” I hope some of my values might rub off.

John Shelby Spong

Read the essay online here.

Question & Answer

Mary Emeny from Amarillo, Texas, writes:


I have always had trouble saying the Nicene Creed. It sticks in my throat. I know several others who have the same experience with it. When you were in Amarillo in June, you gave an explanation of it and how you relate to it. I believe others might find it helpful so would you mind repeating it?


Dear Mary,

I find it difficult to recall what I said back in June. I only know I enjoyed our time in Amarillo enormously. My thanks to all of you for that time. It was very special.

Your question, however, comes up often. I think it is because people think of the creeds as statements of belief required of a Christian. The creeds are certainly used that way in many Christian churches. Is that, however, a proper way to view them? I do not think so.

A look at history will help to put the creeds into perspective. St. Paul did not know anything about creeds. He responded in I Corinthians 15 to questions about the Christian faith by saying, “I have delivered to you as of first importance what I have received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures and that he appeared to Cephus, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. “Last of all,” Paul concludes, “he appeared to me.” This recitation of the major events in the Christ story looks to me like the beginning of a creed.

Having said that, however, a look at early church history reveals that no one related to these Pauline words as the beginning of doctrine or dogma. Indeed, much of it is open to a wide variety of interpretations. The idea that Jesus “died for my sins,” for example, has come to be read as a statement of substitutionary atonement, which is nonsense, both historically and psychologically. The phrase “to die for our sins” arises out of the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, which is something vastly different from the idea that God punished Jesus for our sins instead of punishing you and me. To hold to that concept would give us a rather monstrous, child-abusing God that I for one would not care to worship.

In the “Parable of the Judgment,” found in Matthew 25, the only criteria for entering the Kingdom of Heaven did not involve believing any creedal statement, but rather the ability to see the “Holy” in the faces of those viewed as the least of humanity, the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the imprisoned and the sick.

The Nicene Creed, which is the one to which most people are referring when they talk about creeds, is a fourth century document hammered out in great conflict at a council meeting of the leaders of Christianity in 325 CE. Because the intellectual life of the fourth century Mediterranean world was dominated by the Greek language and culture, this creed reflects the dualistic thinking of Ancient Greece, contrasting the supernatural with the natural, the divine with the human and the body with the soul. Most dualistic thinking has been abandoned by the intellectual world of the 21st century. Yet those creeds live on and, if literalized, bend 21st century minds into fourth century pretzels! They were never meant to be strait jackets into which our minds had to be contained or girdles into which our flabby faith had to be forced. I see this creed primarily as a love song that our fourth century ancestors wrote to sing to their understanding of God. I have no problem in joining in the singing of this ancient love song, but it would not occur to me that saying these words in worship somehow committed me to a literalized belief system, based on a 4th century view of reality.

All creeds are human attempts to capture in human words the experience of the divine. The words we use to describe the divine will differ in every generation. There is no such thing as an unchanging universal language. No one can be bound by the words of a generation that no longer exists and that includes the words of our creeds. God is a living experience and talking about that experience will take different forms in every generation. None of those forms will ever be ultimate nor will any of them ever capture truth for all time. Words like infallible and inerrant have no place in the Christian vocabulary.

I hope this helps.

John Shelby Spong


One Comment

  1. Robert Towler
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 5:32 am | Permalink | Reply

    A good statement. Thanks.

    Sent from my iPad


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