(Romans 13: 1-10)
Back in 2015, during an election season in Great Britain, four children, all ten years old, were interviewed by The Telegraph and asked questions about politics and the political process. Their answers were, to put it mildly, revealing. This interview may have taken place across the pond and not contain names like “Hillary” or “Trump”, but I think we all can relate to what they had to say.
For instance, when asked what a general election was, young India replied, “It’s a big argument that goes on between adults who want to be the boss of everything.” She added, “They’re getting very angry about it.” George said, “It’s when politicians make lots of promises, which some don’t ever bother to stand by.”
When asked to describe what a political party was, Matthew piped up: “All these people get together and have a huge discussion, and try to get each other to back down.” Halle answered the question with one of her own: “Wouldn’t it be better if they had a proper party with a bouncy house? If they had fun, they might get along a little better and agree more.”
And when asked what makes a good political party leader, all four responded with the honest, unfiltered wisdom that ten years of life provides:
- They should be like the people we vote to our school council: truthful, kind and always standing by their word.
- They should have good ideas.
- They should be very good at listening, especially to people who are sad or have problems.
- They should treat other people how they want to be treated.
This sermon series we’re in the middle of right now – Finding God In Everyday Places – finds us in the middle of an election season of our own, one of the more volatile election cycles in recent memory. Presidential elections always have a particular angst about them, but it sure feels more angsty this time. Both candidates from our country’s two main parties bear the dubious distinction of having the highest disapproval rating of anyone who’s ever run for that office. This angst is felt across the country, but especially here in North Carolina, a battleground state with equally contentious races for governor and US senate.
All of which makes me see even more the wisdom of young Halle: bouncy houses at every polling place, can I get an amen!
In all honesty, I’ve been thinking a lot about this election. It’s hard not to. I was watching TV the other night and the entire commercial break – five commercials – were all campaign ads. It’s enough to turn you off to the whole process.
Which turns out to be a real problem, in fact. Our country has one of the lowest voter turnout percentages among developed countries. A depressing 53% in the last presidential election, dropping us to 31 out of 35 countries. Midterm elections are worse – according to one source, under 42%.
We talk about one’s “civic duty” as an American in an attempt to get more folks to the polls. But this morning, I want to look at this not as an American, but as a Christian – what is our civic duty as people of faith? Not what our government expects of us as citizens of this great country, but what God expects as believers and followers?
Turns out the apostle Paul had something to say about this. His letter to the churches in Rome; churches he was seeking a relationship with. Now Paul was a smart guy. Paul knew these churches had by-and-large a cordial relationship with the Roman Empire – which was, of course, centered in Rome itself. But Paul also knew there were factions in the churches that bristled at the oppressive empire and were looking to stir up trouble.
So Paul kind of threads the needle in his letter to them, making the case for civic responsibility without compromising the integrity of faith. Let every person be subject to governing authorities, Paul says. The Greek work translated “subject to” is hypotasso – it literally means “subject under.” But the way Paul uses it here – “let every person be subject to” – suggests that it’s something people choose to do, not have forced upon them.
And there’s more. Because, Paul goes on, there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and all authority has been instituted by God. Here’s the cool part – that word “instituted” – in the Greek it’s tasso, a close cousin to our aforementioned hypotasso. As Paul lays it out, the authority our government possesses does not come from its own volition – it comes from God and God alone; and the only reason they have that authority to begin with is because God chooses to give it to them.
So the civic duty Paul preaches here is this: since all authority comes from God, including governmental authorities, we are to submit to their authority in confidence. We make that choice, because it is a faithful choice.
It’s the same kind of thing echoed in our other passage today. God’s people thousands of years before had found themselves in the strange and foreign land of Babylon, not at all like their Jerusalem home. Things look different, feel different. Everything is out of sorts. It would’ve been the perfect time for a little uprising, a little balancing of the scales, if you will.
And yet there is the prophet Jeremiah, putting on his best Paul impression:
Build houses and make yourselves at home, he tells them. Plant gardens and eat what comes from them. Marry and have children, and encourage your children to marry and have children of their own. Seek the welfare of the city in which you live.
I’m sure Jeremiah’s words here came as a surprise to the Israelites. I’m sure they questioned his notion of “civic duty” in their situation, in the same way those Christians in Rome probably questioned Paul. Which leads us to the question of the day, and I’m sure many of you have already gone there yourself:
What do we do when the authority God grants our elected leaders is misused or abused? What happens when people of faith lose confidence in their leaders or disagree with their decisions? What do we do when we’re standing in the voting booth looking at the ballot, and cannot find anyone we want to entrust God’s authority to?
Those are the questions we face. And it’s not just us. Mere years after Paul penned his words, Christians in Rome were horrifically persecuted by the brutal Emperor Nero. In our day and time, we’ve already mentioned how disliked and distrusted our two presidential candidates are. Throw into that toxic mix the fact that, according to some polls, congressional approval ratings hover around 13%, and it’s not a pretty picture.
So what is a faithful response in the midst of such discord and disdain? What is our civic duty in these troubled times?
I’ve thought a lot about this over the past few weeks. I’ve thought a lot because this election has weighed on me as your pastor. Now I have my opinions about certain candidates and issues, as I know you do. It’s possible we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. And contrary to the message we often get from our polarized culture, that’s okay. It’s okay to not always agree on everything because it’s not our calling to agree. It’s our calling to be faithful.
So again – what is our civic duty as people of faith? I want to submit to you three possibilities:
First, I think we as people of faith have a civic duty to our country. I think we are called as followers of Jesus Christ to participate in our government, and choose to subject ourselves to the authority God has granted it. This means we pay our taxes. This means we follow its laws. And when it comes time, it means we vote.
Last Friday, I did just that. But I made a conscious decision to go uptown, out of my South Charlotte context, and vote at the Hal Marshall Annex. I was in and out in ten minutes, obviously I hit a sweet spot. What struck me, though, was the amazing mosaic of humanity I witnessed around me as I tapped my check marks into the screen – young and old, women and men, rich and poor, black and white and Asian and Hispanic and everything else. We were all there together, doing the very same thing together. And then we left. But for that moment, I felt it – I felt the the togetherness that has nothing to do with the people I voted for, and everything to do with the people right in front of me.
So that’s one kind of civic duty we have. We also have a civic duty as people of faith to each other. And this, my friends, this is a duty of the highest importance; as important as casting a vote. It is the duty of listening to the voices of those who are different from us, seeking them out if necessary.
And here’s why that’s so important. Somewhere along the line we’ve come to believe the notion, or at least be comfortable with the notion, that people who do not share our views or life experiences are not worth listening to. This has all kinds of devastating effects on communal life in general, but particularly on the political process.
Back in 1995, then-speaker of the House Newt Gingrich encouraged the large group of incoming representatives to leave their families back home in their home districts rather than moving them to Washington, which is what always happened before. Prior to this, representatives from both parties “attended the same social events on weekends, their spouses became friends, their children played on the same sports teams.” All that disappeared – and with it a sense of community and a shared common good.
The result? As columnist David Brooks recently wrote, “We’re now at a point in which politicians live in fear if they try to compromise and legislate. People feel unheard, which makes them shout even louder, which further destroys the conversation.”
If all we do as citizens, as people of faith, is surround ourselves with people who look, think, talk, act and move in the world like us, we can never hope to fully understand or sympathize with the perspectives of “the other.” More to the point, “the other” remains “the other.”
It is our civic duty, then, I would contend, that we make a point of seeking out and hearing those other voices. That we intentionally put ourselves into contexts and situations that force us to be in community with people not like us. It’s why Grace and I donned stoles on the Saturday night after the shooting death of Keith Lamott Scott and walked alongside the protesters uptown – to hear their voice, and to let them know they were heard. It’s why our church has begun a partnership with Smallwood Presbyterian up in West End, six members from each congregation, gathering around the table every so often to break bread, share our stories and most importantly listen. It’s why our church is looking to build on the strong foundation we have with NationsFord Elementary School, moving beyond simply volunteering and providing resources to developing a deeper relationship that is transformative for both.
This is critical, y’all. As Christian Ethics professor David Gushee so aptly puts it:
We must get out of our informational and friendship ghettos. We must choose not to hold friendships hostage to political or cultural agreement. And we must remember that this whole sprawling, squabbling assemblage of human beings is part of our country, and there is no chance that it will anytime soon be reduced to include only those who agree with us.
So a civic duty as people of faith to our country, to each other. And lastly, a civic duty as people of faith to our God. A duty to never forget that all authority we choose to subject to comes from God and only God.
And maybe there is some comfort in this as we prepare to elect new leaders, none of which will garner 100% consensus of the electorate. Maybe there is comfort in reminding ourselves that, while it is debatable whether these folks are deserving of our vote, there is no debating that none of them are deserving of our allegiance. The only one truly deserving of our unwavering and unending faith is a name we’ll never find written on a ballot but will always find written in our hearts – and that is Jesus Christ.
Now we can certainly write Jesus in if we like. But perhaps a more faithful way to fulfill our civic duty to God is this: whoever we chose to vote for, live as if Jesus Christ is our President, our Governor and Senator, our Lieutenant Governor and representative. Live as if Jesus is our Attorney General and Treasurer, our Commissioner of Agriculture and Secretary of State, our County Commissioner and Appeals court judge. Live as if Jesus is even our Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor – which, just so you know, is on the ballot this year.
Life as if Jesus Christ is all those things and more, because he most certainly is.
Live in love – for it is love, and nothing less, that ought to be at the very heart of our civic duty. I love the way Paul puts it in his letter: Don’t run up debts, Paul proclaims, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other.
How about that – the notion of racking up a huge debt of love with our life. Think about that for a minute. What would it be like if you and I really lived that way? Serving our country, honoring God, and listening to “the other” so the other might become “another?” How might that perpetual sense of love-debt incredibly transform everything?
May God guide us in and through these turbulent times. To see above and beyond and through, to stubbornly cling on to hope over fear, and to have unfaltering faith in a God from which all authority comes.
And for the love of all that is good and holy, bouncy houses at every polling place!
In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/11579275/Kids-say-the-funniest-things-about-politicians.html, visited on 10.24.2016.
 http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/02/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/, visited on 10.26.2016.
 http://www.gallup.com/poll/190598/congress-approval-remains-low.aspx, visited on 10.25.2016.
 As shared by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion. 2012, Vintage Books, pg. 363.
 http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/26/opinion/the-governing-cancer-of-our-time.html?_r=1, visited on 10.23.2016.
 David Gushee, A Letter To My Anxious Christian Friends: From Fear To Faith In Unsettled Times. 2016, Westminster John Knox Press, pg. 35.