It's Always about Politics

(Luke 14:1, 7-14)

From early on they tell you to avoid two subjects. If you want to keep things civil, just don’t bring up these two conversation killers.

You know it, right? I suspect that as many of you pile into the minivan and head to Labor Day gatherings tomorrow, someone will have to remind everybody else in the car not to bring up religion or politics.

Too much heat, and not enough light. Makes everybody uncomfortable.

Nobody wants to be uncle Darryl, who believes that the world will be a better place if everyone opens, reads, then forwards his emails about a rogue pizza parlor, faked moon landings, and the “fake news media.”

Every family has an uncle Darryl. And if you think your family is the exception, that there’s nobody by that description among your kin, then you may need to stop and consider whether you’re uncle Darryl.

Politics. Boy, do we try to keep that one at arm’s length. But Aristotle says we can’t keep politics out. He noted famously that “human beings are political animals.”

Of course, what he meant by that was not that everybody reads the New York Times and watches Meet the Press, but that human beings seem to have a natural need to live in a polis, which is to say, in a community.

According to Aristotle, human beings—though some of us are more introverted than others—have a need to live among other human beings. That’s why, for example, solitary confinement is considered one of the most cruel punishments we can inflict on another human being.

Aristotle also said that any person who didn’t need a community was either a beast or a god.

Consequently, much of our lives are taken up with politics—that is, with how we organize ourselves to live together peacefully and productively in a polis.

So, we can’t help but be concerned with politics—if not in the “Democrat and Republican” sense, then in the sense that how we order our common life goes to the very heart of who we are as human beings.

Still, though. It’s a pretty potent set of concerns, isn’t it. We’ve got heavy emotional investments in how we think the pie ought to be carved up.

But add religion to the mix. Watch out.

Politics … and religion. Together? That’s like the social equivalent of Def-con 1.

It may not surprise you to know that people often comment to me that religion ought to stay out of politics. I hear this from my students—and in the comment section on my Facebook author page.

“Religion has no business in the public sphere. People ought to keep their religion to themselves,” my students say.

We’ve just come through the fifty-sixth anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, so you may appreciate this. I respond to my students by saying, “I understand that religion has caused a great deal of mischief by meddling in politics. A lot of people have died because somebody thought it was a good idea to inject religion in to politics. On the other hand, social justice campaigns like the anti-slavery movement, or the women’s suffrage movement, or the Civil Rights movement, were largely products of people’s religious convictions about how other human beings ought to be treated.”

On the other side, I also get comments from well-meaning religious people who say, “Politics has no place in religion. Religion is about prayer and love and that kind of stuff, not about voting and laws.”

Interestingly, my answer is mostly the same—that Christianity has a proud history of viewing itself as required by an understanding of the unfolding reign of God to speak about whether the ways we organize ourselves are just and loving.

Jesus, in other words, had all kinds of things to say about politics.

Take today’s passage, for instance. On its face, our Gospel looks like merely a lesson in etiquette, right? But etiquette is politics, inasmuch as it’s concerned with with making the possibility of a polis in which humans can flourish that much more likely.

But etiquette can also be used by the powerful to squash protest and the resistance of those who have no other means of shining a light on injustice. So yeah, even manners are political.

But reading through this passage feels kind of like an ancient Near Eastern Emily Post, doesn’t it?

When at a wedding, don’t sit at the head table. Otherwise, somebody more important will come along and boot you out. And boy howdy! Are you going to look stupid then. Also, when you throw your champagne breakfasts, don’t just invite people who can return the favor by offering an invitation to “brunch on the yacht.” Instead, invite people who can’t pay you back, you know, like the “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

Now, the first one just seems like good sense. It sounds like something you might be tempted tell your middle schooler before the first day of 6th grade—in an attempt to protect them from the cruelty of puberty:

“When you go to the lunchroom, don’t just walk up and sit down at a table. Scope the place out a little. Make sure there aren’t too many tattoos or cheerleaders before you sit down.”

But the second one throws us. Only invite people who are unable to do anything for you in return? What is that all about?

Frankly, that feels backwards.

Did you know in the old west that that stagecoaches sold different classes of tickets? Yeah, me either. John Claypool spoke about this. I don’t guess I ever thought much about it.

Apparently, there were three classes of tickets—first class being most expensive, and third class being cheapest.

Now, if you’ve flown on an airplane, you know all about the differences between first class and the cheap seats. First class gets to board before everybody else. They get good stuff to eat and drink. And the seats are usually bigger, less crowded.

But on the stagecoach, all the seats were the same. What differentiated first class from third class wasn’t dirty martinis and hot towels for your face.

On a stagecoach first class ticket holders didn’t have to do anything to help out if the stagecoach broke down or got stuck. There was no work expected from you.

A second class ticket required that if something happened, you had to get out and walk alongside until it was fixed or dragged out of the mud.

If you were in third class, on the other hand, you were expected to get out and push. You had to jump down in the mud and help out.

As John Claypool observed this seemed perfectly to characterize our understanding of human nature … to equate first class with privilege, with not having to get your hands dirty, with not having to be inconvenienced from your repose, regardless of what’s going on outside your hermetically sealed little cabin.

Moreover, Claypool observed, this human stratification is exactly the kind of political tree against which Jesus swings his ax.

Christianity over the last couple hundred years has popularly assumed that following Jesus is about personal morality, about having your heart right, about believing correctly. In short, popular Christian faith has largely been focused on the individual.

What do I mean?

As a child, growing up in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, I was taught that everybody is equal, regardless of race. A cultural shift was under way in the late 60s, early 70s (at least in the Midwest of my childhood), with respect to what was now unacceptable to believe and say about other human beings.

Where ten years before, many Midwestern white folk might not have been outraged by the n-word, the post-Civil Rights world of my childhood in the nation’s suburban heartland began to see it as not only impolite but as fundamentally wrong.

On a more personal level, I knew there were certain words I wasn’t supposed to say—outright profanity, some marginal (and therefore questionable) slang, and racial name calling. I could get in just as much trouble in my house for using the n-word as I could for using some other words.

But here’s the thing: Though I was discouraged from using racially offensive language on a personal level, I never made the connection with a larger system of racial injustice that produced people capable of speaking about other human beings in that way. I was never taught that just refraining from using the n-word was only the beginning of Christian responsibility to other people whom God created.

On balance, I grew up feeling justified when it came to the issue of racism. I never owned slaves. Nobody I knew ever owned slaves. It never occurred to me that evaluating somebody based on the color of their skin for a job or a friendship or as a lover was ever acceptable. I didn’t use the n-word. What else could possibly be expected of me?

Activists weren’t my people. My people didn’t march; we didn’t agitate; we didn’t “sit in”; we didn’t advocate. Not that those things were necessarily wrong—or even that it would have been actively frowned upon by my people. It’s just that—at least in my case—I never made the connection between my responsibilities to the world I lived in and what I thought it meant to follow Jesus—apart from what it might mean for my personal salvation.

But in this story from Luke Jesus puts the lie to the notion that faith is best expressed in terms of “having a personal relationship with Jesus.” This is a story about politics, about the ways we arrange all of our relationships … personal and otherwise.

This is a story, not about the lofty things that might otherwise occupy our religious reflection. This is an ordinary story about people, and lunch, and guest lists, and who gets invited, who gets left out, and why.

This is a story about how Jesus turns our world on its head, putting the first class folks at the back of the plane with pretzels and that little over head compartment that only has enough room for a couple of blankets and a fire extinguisher … while the folks who spend their lives sitting in the middle seat between the man-spreader and the Mary Kay woman from Kalamazoo get ushered up to the front.

This is a story not just about how big our welcome has to be if we follow Jesus, but about how bananas and unrealistic it’s going to appear to the rest of the world when we roll it out.

You see the politics Jesus unveils unlocks the door to those who’ve been left out in the cold, those too poor to buy a first class ticket, those too sick to get good health insurance, those too washed out and used up to get past the bouncers standing behind the velvet ropes.

Our world, both inside the church and out, would love to keep religion and politics separated, in neutral corners. Because when you put them together, things get uncomfortable … fast.

The whole thing is a lot easier if we just keep religion personal, about the individual, about praying and Bible reading and not swearing and not sleeping with the wrong person. Because if that’s all it’s about, the folks in first class get to keep their their engraved invitations to life’s party, get to keep their seats at the head of the table, and nothing gets interrupted and the folks in first class don’t have to get out in the mud and help push the whole thing out of the ditch.

But Jesus isn’t preaching niceness. He’s preaching revolution: the first shall be last, and the last shall be first; those who would save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for his sake will find them. And no matter how much it annoys us, that’s political.

The world we live in tells us that the way we order our lives, who gets to sit in first class and who has to clean up after the party, isn’t a matter for religion. But Jesus says that our faith is precisely about seating charts and who makes them and who gets to sit where.

The world we live in tells us that we should only invite to the party those who deserve to be there, those who can invite us back. But Jesus says, nobody deserves to be there (not you … not me), so you’d better invite everybody. And when they get there, you’re going to have to redraw the seating chart.

This isn’t a story about another world, where everything’s already sorted out and people don’t have to worry about anything. This is a story about this world. And as messy and unpredictable as it is, this is the world where Jesus lived and died in an attempt to draw up a new guest list, to shuffle the seating arrangements. And that, my friends, is politics.

It’s always about politics.