Pulpit Politics OR don’t take anything they say in Church seriously?

As the nation crawls towards another election, we are seeing once again the rather tasteless phenomenon of political leaders popping up in churches on Sundays to try to convince worshippers to vote for them. With varying degrees of sophistication – or crassness – they will try to tell you that their party is the one to vote for because it is the one that Jesus would support.

Treat such claims with the contempt they deserve.

In his human life Jesus never voted once. He didn’t have the vote. No one had the vote. And if his relationship with religious factions in Judea are an approximation of how Jesus dealt with ‘political parties’, he rejected the very idea of factions or parties.

Though many biblical scholars suggest that he came out of a Pharisee environment, Jesus was vociferous in his criticism of the Pharisees. Though his ascetic lifestyle and need to disappear from the limelight suggested an affinity for the quasi-monastic Essenes, Jesus never endorsed the extreme sectarianism and social withdrawal that characterised the Essenes. Though many of his followers seem to have had sympathy for the violent ‘Zealot’ separatists, Jesus clearly saw that revolutionary insurrection against Rome was a high road to self-destruction. (The disastrous Jewish revolt of 66-70AD more than thirty years after his death-resurrection, proved him right in this too).

Despite their greedy clericalism, it should be noted that Jesus even counted among his friends members of the Jerusalem Sadducee priestly class.

What’s the point of this potted history? My suggestion is that Jesus was not so much apolitical as trans-political: his political views were driven not by ethnic or theological loyalties but by a moral vision that demanded personal integrity and a concern for the common good.

Such a politics is one that combines the ideal of justice for all with a realism about what is actually doable. This is done without creating greater harm through both intended and unintended consequences and an insistence that politicians live and act with integrity. It is hard to attain even in democracies, and particularly in electoral systems where one votes less for persons than for parties – many of which combine good people and crooked scum, sane realists and ideologically driven crazies on the same list.

Hence my objection to the pulpit-based grandstanding one sees as the election draws near. It is difficult enough for a thinking voter to discern what is bad, worse and politically delusional as it is. To have politicians trying to convince you that their position is Jesus’ position is at best dishonest, at worst a misuse of the church.

We should, if we are unfortunately subjected to such pulpit politicking, remember the words of a 19th Century Russian anarchist who warned that when rulers speak of God the people are most likely to get exploited. And vote accordingly.

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Fr Anthony Egan SJ
B.A. (Hons), M.A. (UCT), B.A. (Hons) (London), M.Div., S.T.L. (Weston), Ph.D. (Wits)

Fr Anthony Egan SJ has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand, where he currently teaches at the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for Spotlight. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

a.egan@jesuitinstitute.org.za
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