Spirituality and Politics Don’t Mix!




I. “Mr. President/Madam President, May I Pray to My God?  I Have Already Prayed to Yours.”  Scary!

The smallest country on the globe was the epicenter of the most pivotal world news of this week.  Vatican City once again saw the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney wafting toward the heavens signaling the election of a new Pope.  An hour and a bit later, Francis I stepped out onto the Chapel’s balcony, immediately out of our sight to stand on an elevated platform intended to raise him above his fellow cardinals and asked the throngs packed into St. Peter’s Square and the millions watching and listening via various media to bless him before he blessed them.
Not only had he taken responsibility for leading the world’slargest entity of institutional Christianity, but simultaneously he had become the absolute monarch of the tiny–800 and a few citizens–though unutterably powerful theocracy, Vatican City.  To say that there is no separation of church and state there is laughable; it is to waste one’s breath.
Though many in our country have forgotten, disparaged, or ignored the great gift from our founding mothers and fathers–a or the dominant reason this nation was founded, namely separation of temple/church/mosque and state–the preservation of absolute religious liberty is required in order for the United States to be the United States.  More than a few countries among the 195 or so total nations on this globe have not been able to claim such a gift.  “The degree of separation varies from total separation mandated by a constitution, as in India and Singapore, to an official religion with total prohibition of the practice of any other religion, as in the Maldives” (Wikipedia).
Pope Emeritus Benedict, during his active papacy, made the statement that Christians are most persecuted religious group in the world.  That wasn’t a un-thought-through generalization.  Vatican researchers have recently reported that about 75 out of every 100 people persecuted by governments are Christians.  The top ten culprits according to an organization called Open Doors are:

1) North Korea
2) Saudi Arabia
3) Afghanistan
4) Iraq
5)   Somalia
6)   Maldives
7)   Mali
8)   Iran
9)   Yemen
10) Eritrea

Open Doors statisticians help us with the numbers.  As of the end of last year estimates were that some 100 million Christians had been persecuted around the world in 2012.
If that number reflects 75 percent of the total number of people persecuted in a 12 month period then all together there would be something like 134 million people persecuted–7 million people more than the population of Japan.  You might mention this to anybody you know who thinks separation of religious institution and state is unimportant.
While King James I of England was busily watching over the work of the teams of translators who would eventually release his Authorized Version of the Bible (aka the KJV, King James Versionof the Bible) in 1611, he was also persecuting Roman Catholics as well as non-Anglican Protestants.  Those persecutions initiated the longings in the hearts of many, especially the persecuted Protestants, for true religious liberty; eventually that led to visions of a “new world” in which the government had no role whatsoever in how a citizen practiced her or his religious values.
In some of written materials interpreting a Library of Congress exhibition called “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” this summary was offered:


Many of the British North American colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women, who, in the face of European persecution, refused to compromise passionately held religious convictions and fled Europe. The New England colonies, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were conceived and established “as plantations of religion.” Some settlers who arrived in these areas came for secular motives…, but the great majority left Europe to worship God in the way they believed to be correct. They enthusiastically supported the efforts of their leaders to create “a city on a hill” or a “holy experiment,” whose success would prove that God’s plan for God’s churches could be successfully realized in the American wilderness. Even colonies like Virginia, which were planned as commercial ventures, were led by entrepreneurs who considered themselves “militant Protestants” and who worked diligently to promote the prosperity of the church.

Simon Brown writing in the blog, “Wall of Separation,” discussed in Friday’s blog post the decision by newly confirmed CIA director, John Brennan, not to place his hand on a Bible when he took his oath of office.  When Brennan took the oath to assume the responsibilities for overseeing the work of the CIA he chose to place his hand on a copy of the Constitution rather than on the Bible, which is the most frequently used book on which people
taking oaths in this country place their hands. Brown pointed out in his article that there is no constitutional requirement that anybody including a president of United States place his and someday her hand on a copy of a Bible, that is the collected holy writ of Judaism and Christianity compiled in a single volume.  As we would expect, the religious right can’t say enough bad things about Brennan now, and those who are unwaveringly committed to the separation of religious institution and state are praising him for his decision.
Why indeed would the Bible be used at all within a civil context in a religiously pluralistic nation? Why would a Bible, which contains indisputable demands not to swear at all, be used ostensibly to add credibility to someone’s stated devotion and loyalty to perform a significant task?  Maybe you’ve heard about such biblical admonitions such as in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is reported to have said, “Don’t take any kind of an oath–whether you are swearing by appealing to something less than divine or by heaven itself, which is God’s abode.”  Oops!   Similarly, in the book of James, also in the fifth chapter there, James–possibly the brother of Jesus–spits it out in plain Greek!  “Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear–not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’  Otherwise you will be condemned.”
The Bible is a distinctively Christian compendium.  A fair number of US Americans have chosen religious pathways other than the Christian one, and the only way the freedom to be a Christian can be protected in this country is to preserve with equal zeal the right of any citizen not to be a Christian.

II. One Angry Rabbi

The seemingly incongruous story about Jesus entering the great Jerusalem Temple and overturning the tables of the moneychangers and the sacrificial-animal sellers before chewing them out is another in our collection of stories about the subversive Jesus. This subversive act is not as subtle turning the other cheek and going the extra mile; nor is it intended to subvert government.  This act subverted the hierarchy of organized religion.
The first thing traditional interpreters are inclined to do is to soften this story or put all the on the people who drove Jesus to such an extreme.  If we were to take all of the stories about Jesus and the sayings attributed to Jesus that sound angry or dismissive or unrealistically demanding we would have a Jesus who would be very unappealing to the masses.  As it is, those stories are set in larger collections of materials that can be used to deflect the sting and, thus, make Jesus more appealing to the average spiritual seeker, to the seeker who isn’t terribly comfortable with even subtle subversiveness or conflict.
The moneychangers in the Temple precincts, it could be argued, we’re simply doing their jobs. They were doing their jobs in the same way that those who sold sacrificial animals were doing theirs. When one came to the Temple, which for many was not a frequent occurrence, sacrifices were supposed to be offered. And someone who came from a great distance might prefer to purchase a sacrificial animal after having arrived at the Temple rather than to  bring some kind of animal a great distance was supposed to be in pristine condition for sacrifice.
In this case what appears to have made Jesus angry was that the moneychangers and those who sold sacrificial animals were doing what the tax collectors did. They were charging exorbitant commissions in order for their fellow Jews to be able to comply with Temple demands. In the case of tax collectors, as you have heard no doubt, they were charging exorbitant taxes and skimming way off the top profits for themselves. They were taking money that should’ve been used by their fellow Jews for family support and self-support.
When Jews went to the Temple, they had to offer a sacrifice and had to pay a Temple tax. OK, I’m all for clergy pay and facility upkeep, and I say that in an entirely non-self-serving manner!  But we don’t ask you to pay up around here before we will let you in the door or before the pastor will visit you in the hospital.  Services aren’t for sale.  Well, I WOULD charge if you asked me to burn a sacrifice for you, and it couldn’t be an animal!  Just so you know, I wouldn’t keep your money; I’d contribute it to the Capital Fund to pay for ceiling replacements and heaters.
There was a religious group in Wilmington, I’m not sure they’re still here, that bluntly pointed out in their marketing stuff that if you made an appointment with a pastor there would be a charge.  I will not be critical.  I will simply say that I don’t understand that tradition, but it seemed to me very much like the Temple tax or the requirement to sacrifice.  One preacher called the Temple tax a “pay to pray” fee!
Jesus went into the Temple precincts as he had on many occasions, and he saw the same commercialism he had seen every time he’d been in the Temple since his first visit at the age of 12.  What pushed him over the edge this time isn’t clear; maybe he’d just had all he could stand.  Or maybe he’d run into some folks outside who’d been turned away because they couldn’t pay the fees.  All of that is nothing more than my speculation, but what is clear–and all four Gospels report this story, which is a rarity–is that Jesus was as angry as could be.
He stomped into the and money-changing area, and he started yelling and turning over tables and tossing coin tills right and left.  Onlookers were surprised in general, and those who knew Jesus were surprised enough to be totally shocked.
When he calmed down enough to be understood, the people heard him exclaim, “This is supposed to be a place for honoring God, and you’ve turned it into a money-making racket on the backs of those who just want to find a closer connection to God.”  The irony was that Rome, for the most part at this point, didn’t interfere with how the Jews chose to worship their God; so here the government wasn’t interfering, but organized religion itself was.
Here was government keeping its nose out of religion, and, instead of enjoying that freedom, religion steps in and usurps the freedom by creating hoops that they insisted had to be jumped through to get to God in any kind of way.  It was precisely a political stumbling block, though religious politics and not civil politics.  To fairly represent the context in which Jesus and his fellow Jews lived, I have to point out that as far as Judaism went there was no separation of synagogue and state, but Rome was the true political boss.  Though Rome didn’t have to be constrained by consistency and after Jesus’ time would shamelessly force it’s Emperor Worship on the Jews, during Jesus’ lifetime this was not the case.  Rome wasn’t interfering with the spiritual freedoms of the Jews, but the Jews’ own religious structures were.
Religion getting in the way of spirituality.  Religious politics and payments more important by far than enhancing spirituality.  This is exactly why more and more people in our time are saying that they are spiritual and not religious–and forgetting churches and other religious institutions completely.  Religion has become for them an impediment to and not a catalyst for spiritual empowerment.

III. The Necessity of Privacy and
Independence to Practice and
Nurture Spirituality

I am opposed to public prayer in public schools, and this is my reason. If someone is designated to lead a public prayer then she or he inevitably reflects her or his own theological biases in the words of the prayer.  Ideas, assumptions about God are clearly, unavoidably, passed along to the students who are more or less forced to listen to the prayer.
I’m not opposed to a daily time of thoughtful meditation for students starting out with a very limited time frame when the children are smaller and perhaps asked to think for a few minutes in a day about things they’re thankful for or something to that effect. The time for private prayer, which cannot be stopped or interrupted anyway, will be offered to those maturing students who would like to have such a moment for that kind of thing.
The school official who prays publicly in the public school is an extension of government in the sense that that person has been approved as suitable by the school board or the local government to share directly or indirectly thoughts about God.  What if that person has thoughts about God that are diametrically opposed towhat the students’ parents are teaching them?  What if the prayer contradicts what the student is being taught where she or he goes to sabbath school?  Does an extension of any government entity have the right to create such dissonance?   I don’t think so.
People say to me, and I don’t hear it as much as I used to, “Well, they took the prayer out of public schools, and now all hell is breaking loose not only with our young people but also with society at large.”  I hardly think public prayer is what controls individuals or the masses.  If prayer functioned in such a way as to benefit society by managing bad behavior for the majority of those who heard such prayer, then we wouldn’t have any trouble with ridiculous politicians in the United States because both the House and Senate have had chaplains going back to the country’s birth.
I don’t think there should be a chaplain in the Senate or the House unless the person’s responsibility is to provide pastoral care for lawmakers who need it knowing that the those who take the responsibility seriously carry heavy weights on their shoulders. If lawmakers wish to gather in small groups with like-minded colleagues who want to pray together or bring in a spiritual director of some sort that’s great.  But it’s a whole different story having someone verbalize a prayer for a larger secular group in which there are bound to be captive hearers (such as impressionable children in schools) who must in this country have the freedom to believe what they have already been taught about God or that there is no God to pray to.  No government entity should be influencing or trying to influence the religious practices or thoughts or actions of any citizen.
In 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut–evidently a minority voice among Baptists in the State at that time (and by the way there were not yet Northern Baptists over against Southern Baptists)–wrote to President Thomas Jefferson, still in his first year in office, to complain about how they were being treated by their elected political leaders.  According to the letter, written by a committee of representing the whole Association, their political leaders had made it clear to the Association, which loved religious liberty, that the only liberty they had to enjoy was what the government meted out to them as a gift or favor.  Rather than investing energy in those with limited powers, they made their concerns known to the top person, the President of the United States.  I have done the same thing, and I have several letters from President Obama telling me the Elsmere Police cannot push me around!  (Ha!)
Here is the core of President Jefferson’s famed letter responding to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut:


To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.  Gentlemen:…..    Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties……Th Jefferson
. Jan. 1. 1802.


One of the weighty matters on which all, as far as I know, Silversiders agree is that freedom of thought, in matters of religion and otherwise, is non-negotiable.  Thus, we can offer you no creed.  Regarding spirituality, no one here is going to say, “It’s my way or the highway.”  Instead, as we bask in our freedom to find spiritual inspiration wherever our individual spirits take us–to secular writ or holy writ; to a seat close to our choir or a font row seat at a Mozart symphony concert; to the bubbling Brandywine River or a natural wonder in Peru or the architectural beauty of our sanctuary.    I am empowered by the story of Jesus turning over those tables and admonishing the managers of the profiteering, moneymaking processes built on holy ground.  I hope you are as well.  What his actions teach for our context, I believe, is something like this:  “Enjoy the freedom for which your government provides in the public pursuit of your religious ideals, and for God’s sake don’t let supposedly spiritual institutions rob you of your freedom to exercise your spiritual leanings and longings in ways that only your own inner self can nudge you.”


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