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Religion is Politics

Religion is Politics

Religion is politics.  Bad religion is politics.  Good religion is politics.  You either work for the love that is justice, and/or support such workers, or you work for the so-called ‘love’ that keeps things as they are – the powerful in their place, the poor in their place, and the disturbers of the so-called ‘peace’ under control.

This division between bad and good religion cuts through every religious tradition, and all those who think they have no religion.  It cuts through labels like conservative, liberal, and even progressive.  It cuts through most churches. 

For there will be people who, even if they don’t profit from the status quo, think it is the best possible system, god-ordained even, and injustice just an accident, or something that needs tweaking to make right.  They like the stability, the security, of keeping things as they are.  And their god likes things as they are – yesterday, today, and forever.

The words ‘love’ and ‘peace’ therefore have two meanings.  For those who like things as they are, ‘love’ and ‘peace’ are personal feeling between people.  It’s romance, serenity, smiles, kindness, and no conflict.  But it’s bounded by who you know, like, and meet when out. 

The other meaning of ‘love’ and ‘peace’ is disturbed by things as they are.  It too likes romance, kindness, and concord.  But it wants ‘Samaritans’ (those who are different and are our enemies), without giving up their samaritanness, to be included.  And it wants people like that woman at the well in John 4 (who due to having, we guess, multiple husbands, was alone at that well, shunned by her own community) to be included.  And included not on terms we, with all our prejudices and often privileges set, but on just terms, terms of equality and equity, dignity and respect.   

For this second meaning of love and peace is not just about being nice to strangers or enemies or those whose morals aren’t what we think they should be.  This second meaning of love, instead of wanting things to continue to be as they are, has a vision of injustices being put right – like race, gender, and poverty divisions being overcome, like justice rolling down like a river, like the freedom of a new heaven and a new earth.  For the old heaven and earth have become captive to the mythology of the most powerful.

In the 60s and 70s there was a movement in Germany called Political Evensong and Dorothee Soelle was its most well-known leader.  They met in Cologne’s St Anthony’s Church and thousands would attend.  The credo (our first reading this morning) comes from this time.

Like most Christian creeds its divided into three sections – one about god, one about Jesus, and one about spirit.  The god section begins by talking about creation and what god did not create – namely the structures and systems where the powerful rule and everyone knows their place in this so-called ‘natural’ order.  What god did create, she goes on to say, is the conflict in life as people rebel against this ‘natural order’.

In that one line “(god) willed conflict” Dorothee blasphemed against the mythology of love and peace that dominates in Christianity, and inferred that those who like the current order with everyone in their place and the stability of accepting what the powerful tell us, are not doing or following the will of God.

In 1972 her professorship at the University of Mainz was not renewed.  Many excuses were offered, including a declaration that this credo was “heretical.”  As one commentator said, “The real reasons for Frau Soelle’s termination… is (she) is too leftist.  Frau Soelle is critical of the perception of God in which God lords it over human beings…  She says that is a god the powerful wish for.”

Instead of lording it over humans, god is in Jesus.  God is in Jesus who worked to change the status quo and was destroyed.  And a god was in the jesus who rises again and again in our lives so that we will be free from prejudice and arrogance, from fear and hate, and carry on Jesus’ revolution, and make real Jesus’ vision of a new heaven and earth.

What Dorothee was encouraging was what she called ‘spiritual resistance’ to what we so frequently think are the ‘way things are’.  Things like war, and poverty, and discrimination, and sexism, and racism.  How women are treated, how migrants are treated, how children are treated.  These are political issues.  They are also spiritual issues.  For religion is politics, and always has been.  We either accept the status quo (sometimes begrudgingly or by believing things aren’t so bad), or we resist (sometimes in ways lead to our arrest or other means of punishment).  For Christian resisters we try to maintain what Brueggemann calls an ‘audacious hope’ – that justice will come, that we will overcome, some day.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright, poet and politician, talks about hope as an ability to work for something because it is the right thing to do, to believe in the potential of our actions.  While we may never see the fruits of our efforts, we can still be like the mystical rose.  The rose is brave, and confident that its beauty can heal the world.  It’s also fragile.

So, to hope is to act.  To care is to resist.  To pray is to revolt.  And we will upset people.

There is a glimpse of what we would now call a church at work in Acts 14:19a-20.  Paul had been set upon by a mob in Lystra.  Stoned.  Then left for dead.  The followers of Jesus in that place surrounded Paul.  He recovered.  And then continued on his journey.

We learn from this that following Jesus is a dangerous business.  It annoys people.  People who can win over crowds.  For we follow an anti-hero who critiques our usual strong and successful heroes. Jesus honours, restores, and sides with the marginalized.  And people get hurt when they follow the resister Jesus into the public realm of politics.  It’s a risky business.

Then this story also tells us that church at its best is a community who surrounds its change-makers, restores, and emboldens them to carry on.  It spiritually and physically picks them up and encourages them.  So, there’s a question here: who are the change-makers in our midst, sitting beside us on Sundays?  Who are on the frontlines – not only of caring but of trying to bring change for people and in structures?  What support do they need?  How can we encourage them?

Our reading from Luke today is the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha.  It’s a story, like many in the Bible, that has been de-politicized.  It’s a story where the powerful and those who do their wishes have come along and said, ‘This story could be dangerous’.  ‘We’d better either expunge it if we can, or spin it in such a way that its harmless’.  Which they did.  Only worse.  For they spun it as a conflict between the sisters.

We now know that some Jesus groups in the first two centuries broke with the usual ways of patriarchy by forming alternative family structures.  It is highly likely that Mary and Martha, along with maybe their brother Lazarus, were one such alternate family.  No one was married.  Thus, no patriarch.  The women were the decision-makers, the leaders of this household.

We also know that there was a movement, beginning with some groups in the early centuries but becoming more pronounced by the 3rd and 4th centuries, for the leadership of women not only to be overlooked, dismissed, or discounted, but even to be eradicated from records.  Lists of 12 disciples, and a mythology of ‘the 12’ develops and comes to predominate.  All men.  The writer of 1st Timothy in the mid-2nd century, and the writer of the insert in 1 Corinthians 14 (34-35), even wants women to be silenced.  All women.

The text tells us “(Mary) sat at Jesus’ feet”.  This is what a disciple does.  This is code for Mary is a disciple.  Which was not what women should be doing or men allowing.  According to the rules of the politics that ruled society.  It was not right.  If this was allowed to go unchallenged then, heaven forbid, any woman might think she could be a disciple.  And if a disciple, a teacher, and a leader, even of men.  And then, heaven help us, who would cook and clean or run errands.  This was needed to be corrected.

So, the spin doctors got to work and placed the words of discouragement and critique on the lips of her sister Martha.  It was made into a story about a conflict between women, as the patriarchy looked on and smiled.  In contrast the Gospel of Mary has Mary Magdalene’s leadership challenged by a man (namely the great Peter) and then defended by a man (Levi) whose wisdom prevails.

But the spinners of our Luke pericope couldn’t get rid of the tradition of Jesus siding with Mary though.  Jesus’ words predominate: Mary is a disciple, so don’t dis her.  And today we would add, and don’t fall for the trap of playing one woman off against another in order to diminish women’s ministry.  We all have a calling to be hospitable and to learn and to lead.

So, this little vignette about Mary, Martha, and Jesus, passed down from old, is a political story about political tensions, about the roles of women and men and leadership in the early church.  And like in religion so in society.  Mary and Martha were resisters.  Spiritual resisters.  Political resisters.  Trying to hold true to a vision while surviving in a violent patriarchal world.

The decisions then remain the decisions now.  You either work for the love that is justice, and/or support all who stand up, speak out, and resist, or you work for the so-called ‘love’ that keeps things as they are – the included in their place, the excluded in theirs, and the disturbers of the status quo under control.

It’s that simple really.
Glynn Cardy 17th July 2022