SOCIAL-CONCERNS PORTFOLIO 2000

JANUARY 16, 2000
R.M. FEWKES


Sometime in the mid to late 1970s I began the custom of an annual "Social Concerns Portfolio" sermon in which I reflect upon some of the pertinent social and moral issues of the day. I’ve been at it now for over 20 years. This means that today’s sermon will be my last hurrah to speak my mind in this fashion. In thinking what I might talk about I couldn’t help but be aware that this is a presidential election year in our nation. Since I won’t be here for an Election Day sermon in the fall I figured why not give it a whirl before the primaries descend upon us in the next few months. No, I won’t endorse any candidate from the pulpit, though it might be tempting. The worst that could happen is you might try to fire me, but since I’ve already given my resignation, what could you do. I do not believe in partisan endorsements anyway so I’ll move on to other things.

It would appear that the Republican candidates have somewhat of an advantage because of the so-called Clinton fatigue factor from which Al Gore is doing his best to dissociate himself. I don’t know about you, but I’m already over laden with "primary fatigue" and can’t wait for the non-debate debates to be over. It seems a foregone conclusion that Bush and Gore will be the final candidates to be chosen by their respective parties, so why do we have to go through this gauntlet of primaries pretending to choose who we favor to run in the fall. Because that’s the way our system works.

Personally, I find Bill Bradley and John McCain the most interesting of the men who are hoping to win their party’s nomination. They have put forth some fresh ideas and proposals which the leading candidates have been forced to respond to in some fashion. I would be hard pressed to make a choice between the two. My problem with the leading contenders, George W. Bush and Al Gore, is that it feels too much like déjà vu all over again. Been there, done that. I’m delighted that McCain and Bradley have made Bush and Gore work for their nomination. They have awakened from their political slumber and have had to change their campaign strategies and approaches. At least the trek to the Democratic and Republican conventions won’t be a pure cakewalk. They will both be better candidates because of some spirited competition along the way.

But none of this has anything to do with a social-concerns portfolio for the year 2000. To get there I want to focus on what George Bush said in response to a question about who was the philosopher or thinker who had the greatest influence upon him. Bush responded, "Christ, because he changed my heart." Not wanting to be left out of the appeal to the religious right all the other Republican runners concurred. They wanted to be sure that the public understood the close connection between their personal religious convictions and their particular political agendas. Even Al Gore jumped aboard the religious bandwagon by declaring that he was a born-again Christian and that he drew great strength from reading the Bible. I am sorely tempted to call this "bored-again religion" since everyone wants to let us know how pious they are at heart. Yawn! It seems like such an obvious ploy to appeal to a particular bloc of voters.

In a recent editorial, The Christian Century suggested that political candidates sharing their piety in public had both a positive and negative side. On the positive side, it "signals a healthy openness to expressions of faith in American politics", that "religion is not merely a private matter" to be "silenced by convention or force in the political realm." The Century adds the following proviso: "One only hopes that when Jewish, Muslim or Hindu candidates run for office they will feel as free to share their religious views with the voting public." Fat chance. How many votes from the religious right, left or center, will confessions of "drawing strength from reading the Talmud, the Koran, the Vedas or the Lotus Sutras" win for prospective political candidates? Not many, that’s for sure.

On the negative side, the apparent attempt to use one’s religious faith as a campaign ploy, "to manipulate religious conviction into a political commodity" is, suggests the Century,
"a contemporary form of simony"—namely, "the buying or selling of church office or ecclesiastical preferment." It is a "thin line indeed between speaking openly about faith on the campaign trail and playing the Jesus card for political profit."

Just for the fun of it let’s play the Jesus card, not for political profit, but for evaluating the political goals and agendas of those who would claim Jesus as their favorite political philosopher. What kind of politics would a follower of the ancient Nazarene be inclined to promote? Let us begin by setting forth Jesus’ messianic political agenda, which he took from the prophet Isaiah, and read to his synagogue congregation in Nazareth: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."

How would "preaching good news to the poor" be translated into a political program or agenda? Would it be a tax cut that would benefit the rich far more than those in the middle and lower ends of the income ladder? Would it be giving tax breaks to wealthy corporations while cutting back drastically on welfare subsidies for the poor and needy? I don’t think so. Workfare might be good news to the poor if it included training and education subsidies for those who lack marketable skills. But to punish poor children for the misdeeds or lack of skills of poorly educated or trained adults hardly seems fair. And Jesus, you will remember, said there was no offense greater than to harm the little ones who were part of the Kingdom of God.

What would Jesus’ position be on paying taxes? When asked by the Pharisees, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?"—Jesus responded by showing a coin with Caesar’s image on it, and said, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s." That is not exactly a ringing endorsement of paying taxes, but it would seem to imply that it is at least lawful to do so.

But is this the basis for a flat tax proposal that would make a billionaire like Steve Forbes richer than he already is? I don’t think so. Orrin Hatch, I think, wins the political good humor award for his comment to candidate Forbes, "Steve, I couldn’t even lift your wallet." Well, maybe we could lighten the load by having good ol’ Steve pay a few million more in taxes. I don’t think we should have the kind of election process where only the rich can run and win. Why should any candidate or party be in the position of being able to buy an election? Let’s lighten the load and make a more level playing field for all those who would like to compete.

The second point in Jesus’ messianic political program is "to proclaim release to the captives." This could be the basis for a new look at our prison systems and the need for a revitalized prison ministry. "I was sick and in prison and you visited me." If our prisons are primarily places for isolation and punishment with little to no thought of training and rehabilitation for those who will someday be released, then we are making them into colleges for criminals whose graduates will practice their craft more skillfully when they get out. The political philosophy of most candidates is to build more and bigger prisons and to lock ‘em up and throw away the key. Michael Dukakis once lost an election to George Bush because he was made to look "soft on criminals" with the release of Willie Horton. Ever since no politician wants to be perceived as caring one wit about those who are in prison. No one will ever win an election based on release of the captives. But then Jesus was not running for political office. Why then do so many candidates want to make Jesus their campaign manager?

Where do you think Jesus would stand on the issue of capital punishment? Lest we forget, let us remember that Jesus himself was the victim of a Roman system of capital punishment for every kind of criminal and political offense—not only murder, but theft and robbery, disturbing the peace, political and religious heresy, etc. It didn’t take much to get yourself thrown into prison, to lose an eye, a finger or a hand, or your head, or to be crucified on a cross, which was a common form of punishment for hundreds and thousands of political prisoners. Jesus was a political prisoner who was eventually arrested and executed for disturbing the peace in the Jerusalem temple—over turning the tables of the moneychangers and defying the religious and secular authority of the city. The Gospels report that while on the cross he forgave his executioners and blessed a common criminal who was executed with him. What would candidate Jesus think about the state of Texas, which has the highest rate of execution of criminals of any state in the union, or a governor whose pardons or stays of execution are ever so few and far between? No change of heart here. Mercy and forgiveness are not popular political virtues these days.

The third point in Jesus’ messianic political program is "recovering of sight to the blind." This refers to the important role of healing in Jesus’ ministry. He was presumably known far and wide for his healing touch, which could make the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and lepers cleansed. Whatever else he did it is clear that Jesus cared about people and that he did what he could to make the sick well. If healing was important to his ministry, then healing must be an important component of any social or political program that would claim Jesus as its author or inspiration.

What would Jesus think about the fact of millions of Americans, most of them children, being without medical coverage or insurance? What would he think about the near complete silence of one of our political parties on this question? What do you think about the financial collapse and failure of the Harvard-Pilgrim HMO plan, the largest HMO group in Massachusetts. It makes me real nervous since they are my medical insurance carrier. If the state has to step in with funds to save it is this not a move towards socialized medicine? I’ll lay you dollars to do-nuts that many other HMOs across the nation are in similar straits as Harvard-Pilgrim. This is one of the biggest issues on the minds of the American electorate. If you get a few more major failures in states like New York and California it will rise to the top of the list. If Jesus is your campaign manager you’d better find a way to address this issue.

The "recovering of sight to the blind" could also be a metaphor for education and enlightenment. If our children lack good education and training they will be blind and ignorant to the possibilities for cultural and self-improvement. Education is high on the list of the leading Republican candidate. The question is, should tax money be used to provide vouchers to parents to send their children to private schools if they don’t want to send their kids to public schools? What if those schools are sectarian religious institutions? What about the separation of church and state, giving to Ceasar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s? If we put prayer back into the public schools and post the 10-Commandments on the classroom walls, what about including bowing to Mecca and chanting Om, or posting the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path? Jesus will not help us here, but I don’t think he would want his words to be used to undermine a good public education system.

The fourth point in Jesus’ messianic political program is to "set at liberty those who are oppressed." Here is where you get into a host of thorny and controversial issues like ethnic cleansing, racism, sexism, sexual harassment, homophobia, gays in the military or the boy scouts, age discrimination, excessive greed, etc. Those who would use Jesus to put down or discriminate against one human group or another would have to answer to this messianic proposal—to set at liberty those who are oppressed. Jesus never said one thing against gays or homosexuality, not one word of disapprobation, nor did he ever put down women as persons of worth and insight and potential religious leaders. He even honored the human value and worth of Roman Centurions, Tax Collectors, and Samaritans, the most hated groups in the Palestine of his day.

It is inconceivable to me that Jesus would ever have wanted his followers to discriminate against an Eagle Scout or an army officer with an impeccable military record solely on the basis of that person’s sexual orientation, anymore than he would approve of the sexual harassment of women in the workplace. To set at liberty those who are oppressed is a tall order and one that will never be completed in our lifetime or a hundred lifetimes. But it is something we are called to do in both our personal and political lives.

In conclusion, "to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" would be one in which presidential candidates and the body politic seek to address the principles of Jesus’ messianic political vision—where the poor are aided, prisoners are visited and released, the sick and the blind are healed and educated, the oppressed are set free, and all the children of God rejoice together in the gift of life abundant. So be it. Amen.