Rev. Mark Schaefer
Interfaith Chapel Service
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
November 2, 2016
My first semester on this campus was in the middle of an election season. True, it was the fall of 2000 in the middle of a presidential election, but that wasn’t the election that grabbed my attention in those early weeks on campus. Rather, it was an election for president for the Student Confederation—the predecessor of today’s Student Government. One of the students in the United Methodist community told me he was helping a friend of his to run for SC president and he was hopeful that if his friend were elected, he would land a prestigious cabinet post. I remember thinking, ‘Where am I?’
My undergraduate institution had campus-wide elections but no one took them seriously. The candidates usually just tried to outdo each other with cutesy slogans—a student whose last name was Hecht campaigned with the slogan “What the Hecht!”—but here at AU, there were platforms and position papers and people vying for cabinet posts. (The student I mentioned before did, in fact, land that cabinet post and was appointed KPU Director, a position that I subsequently learned was the AU equivalent to Secretary of State.) And so, I learned very, very quickly that we here at American University take our politics seriously.
And so, it should come as no surprise that national elections are likewise much more a part of the fabric of our campus-wide discourse. We have repeatedly been named one of the most politically-active campuses in the country and it shows. Politics is kind of in our blood. But is there anything in the way that we do politics that distinguishes us from the rest of the country? Is there any value that should shape how we as a community engage with the political realm?
II. ON CHURCH AND STATE
There is, understandably, a great deal of trepidation when it comes to talking about politics from the pulpit. There is a lot of anxiety when it comes to the intersection of faith and politics. Everyone, well, most people would like to avoid an outright theocracy, but beyond that, what role does faith play in our civic life?
This is not a new question, and thoughtful people have been arguing about the issue for a very long time. The Eastern Orthodox saint John of Damascus argued for a separation of authority between the political and ecclesial realm: “It does not belong to kings to legislate for the Church… to kings belongs the maintenance of civil order, but the administration of the church belongs to the shepherds and teachers.” He would describe a symphonia—a harmony between church and state based on function, a balancing of complementary spheres.
One of the early debates in Islam was over the degree of Islamicness of the early Caliphate. Did decisions of the Ummayad Dynasty to relocate the capital to Damascus rather than Mecca and to borrow institutions from the pagan world make them illegitimate from an Islamic perspective or were the two realms different? Was it possible to be a good Muslim and use elements of pre-Islamic Persian and other tradition?
This question continued through history and by the time of the enlightenment landed squarely in the idea of a separation between the religious and the political. It was certainly the ethic that motivated John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and others. The political realm is one thing, the religious another. One contemporary theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, would even go on record as saying:
The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.
Hauerwas even would go so far as to say, “the church and Christians must be uninvolved in the politics of our society and involved in the polity that is the church.”
Is it the case that faith and politics are truly separate? Are there really two separate domains? Sometimes the passage from the Gospels that we heard read earlier is used to support this idea. Jesus said, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Seems pretty straightforward.
But when we look closely at the words of that text we discover something interesting. The translation we read from has Jesus saying, “Whose head is this? And whose title?” But the Greek doesn’t say “head” it says “image”. The word is eikon, that is, ‘icon’. So, what often goes overlooked in this question is: if the coin belongs to Caesar because his image is on it—who do you belong to? That is, whose image are you? It is interesting to note that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the world eikon is also used in Genesis, right where it says that God made humanity in God’s image.
So, when he replies, “Give to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s and to God those things that are God’s,” we understand that that is an entirely different statement than what we’re accustomed to thinking. He is saying to give of your entire being to God because it is on that being that God has placed the divine image. It’s a very politic answer: to any listening Romans, it sounds like an acceptance of Roman power; but to the Jews who would have heard it, it would be a clearly subversive statement. Because if we give ourselves fully to God, then nothing belongs to Caesar.
This seems to argue that there is no separation. No convenient dividing line between the things that we do because of our faith and the things that we do because of our politics. By this measure, we are supposed to live out our faith with every aspect of our being at all times.
Indeed, in Islam and Judaism, where the religion is seen as a way of life not simply a belief system, the same conclusion can be reached. Many of the principles illuminated in the writings of Eastern traditions like Taoism and Confucianism pertain directly to political matters and governance. It becomes clear from the Torah to the Gospel to the Qur’an to the Tao to the Analects to the Bhagavad Gita that faith and our civic lives are inseparable. But does that mean breaking down the walls between Church and State? Does that lead us toward a theocracy?
We know that that can’t be the answer. That’s the very thing that people find so offputting about religion in contemporary life. I mean, we’re all fine with the idea that the political system should reflect our religious values, but lose it when it becomes clear that it might represent someone else’s religious values. And furthermore, the conflation of political and religious identity has become a source of disillusionment with both the political and the religious realms, since not even people of the same faith can agree on the implications of that faith in their political lives.
But if our faith shoudn’t be ascribed to the support of any particular political party, and we are supposed to engage with the world, what are we to do? For faith should neither be the unwitting stooge of a political party, nor should it be a completely disengaged community that does not involve itself in politics at all. People of faith should instead offer a third way.
III. TWO CITIES
One thousand six hundred six years ago this year, the city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. A catastrophe in the minds of the Romans. How could such a terrible thing have happened? How could the Eternal City have suffered such a lowly fate… at the hands of Germans? Had the Christian God failed to save the City? What did this say about God’s power if Rome was not protected from barbarians?
Augustine of Hippo, seeing the fleeing Roman refugees arriving in Northern Africa began to reflect on the sacking of the city. Augustine wrote that there were two cities, two fundamental communities, the City of God and the City of Man, each of which is defined by what the object of its love.
The City of God has God as the object of its love. The citizens of the City of God live with lives of charity and service toward all. They live with hope as pilgrims in the world. Israel and the Church were the examples of the City of God.
The City of the World, on the other hand, loves its own power. The rulers of this city, and the people they rule, are dominated by the lust for domination. They seek power to be in control. Those who are oppressed seek power to oppress those who have oppressed them. They strive for success, security, and an orderly life. Babylon and Rome were examples of the City of the World. Augustine is telling the faithful not to overly lament Rome’s fall as God’s fall. Rome was not the City of God. It was an earthly city.
In the same way we can understand that the political fortunes of any candidate, party, or nation do not reflect God’s fortunes. A president isn’t elected because it’s God’s will. A party doesn’t rise to prominence because God wanted it that way. Nations do not become powerful because they are blessed by God. Neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party is the party of God.
We need to remind ourselves that the Constitution is not a religious text. The United States of America is not the Kingdom of God. The American political system is not the Levitical priesthood. But this is not a call for disengagement. This is a call for engagement while grounding oneself in faith.
Augustine would teach that the citizens of the City of God would still use the things of the world as they pertain to things below, but do not make this earthly life their ultimate end. If we are to be citizens of the City of God, we engage with the political realm, but we do not confuse the things of this world with the City of God.
There is a hadith in Islam in which the Prophet Muhammad said, “If the Day of Judgment erupts while you are planting a new tree, carry on and plant it.” It is not a call for disengagement, but for constructive and faithful engagement. In the Jewish tradition, as we heard, engagement with community is one of the ways in which the individual demonstrates piety and faithfulness. Religion requires constructive engagement with the world. All the structures of the world, including politics, are here for us to use, in order to serve one another in love and charity, to live in hope and in faith. We can and should be engaged in politics inasmuch as political choices affect the lives of millions. But that’s a far cry from concluding that any one political party or philosophy is itself in lockstep with God’s will for us. As human institutions, political parties are fallible, just as we all are.
There’s one other thing about the City of God that bears noting: its citizens are known only to God. We do not possess the capability of knowing who is a citizen of the City of God and the City of the World. This fact alone requires us to deal with one another charitably. It calls us to dealing with our political opponents not as demons set to destroy the people of God, but as fellow children of God, who are acting out of sincerity and a genuine attempt to live out their understanding of God’s purposes. Now, to be sure, not everyone will be doing that, including a person’s political allies. But citizens of the City of God start not from suspicion and fear, but from grace and love.
Some years ago, the university had a civility campaign that sought to shape the attitudes and practices of the members of our university community. The name of that campaign was Civitas, and the name was frequently followed by the tagline: “A community of civil and responsible citizens.” It was a nice name and clearly evoked “civility.” But there’s something else to it—civitas, it turns out, is the exact same word that Augustine used to describe the City of God: civitas Dei. The civitas isn’t the name of a program, or even the name of a given city, it is the name of the community we are called to be. That aspirational community of justice, inclusion, peace, and righteousness. And it is with that civitas that we are called to declare our citizenship.
Politics is a duty of citizenship. But the citizenship we are called to exercise first and foremost is our citizenship in the higher ideal. Whether you understand that higher ideal to be the City of God, the World to Come, the Will of God, the Beloved Community, or to our own campus civitas. All of our traditions call us to something higher than ourselves. Something higher than the self-interested aims of our temporal politics. We are called to be citizens of that civitas. As citizens of that City we engage in politics, remembering it is the aim of serving one another that motivates us, not the accumulation of political power for its own sake.
That civitas, that community, endures. Built on love, service, justice, and inclusion, that community does not fail. No matter the results of any given election, the community built on that foundation endures.
We are on a campus that takes politics very seriously. And we are on a campus that is full of people who want to change the world. The world will not be changed solely by ensuring an electoral triumph. It will not be changed solely by ensuring acceptable Supreme Court justice nominations. It will not be changed solely by advancing one political agenda or another. The world will be changed when we exercise our civic duty with an eye toward our citizenship in something transcendent. When we embody that civitas not only in our aspiriations, but in our being, then our engagement with the political order—whatever our political preferences—can be transformative of the world.