The presidential election season is in full bloom. Political sniping will soon reach a new apex. As the months go by, we will grow weary of the coarse political discourse and will breathe a sigh of relief on Nov. 5.
And yet, the political season is an opportune time to turn to the texts of our faith and be reminded of the values that we hold most dear. This is an opportune time to remember that politics -- though vitally important -- are only one sliver of our ever more complex lives.
Unfortunately, faith and politics often conjoin to form a noxious mix in this country. Faith can too easily become intoxicated by the promise of power and prestige. Tempted by the siren call of political clout and media attention, faith can quickly lose its prophetic edge and its ability to speak truth to power. After all, how do you speak truth to the power when you are the power? When faith and politics combine, love and compassion are too often the first values we lose.
Politics can too easily become enamored of its sanctity. Draped in flags, festooned with garlands of public acclimation, and sanctified by civic rituals, politics and politicians can quickly forget that they are flawed, broken human beings commissioned by fellow citizens to represent not their own holiness but the interests of their neighbors. After all, how can you represent others when you and your positions have supposedly received the sanction of the divine?
Two biblical texts this week, however, invite some other possibilities.
The Lord Is My Shepherd
Psalm 23, along with John 3:16, is perhaps one of the most familiar of biblical texts. Familiarity, of course, can breed contempt. Or at least, our familiarity with this psalm can dull its luster. In this case, both of these texts often lose their power because they seem utterly ordinary, even trite or platitudinous. Nothing could be further from the truth.
When I was in seminary, I served as an intern hospital chaplain for a summer. As I met individuals and couples from all kinds of cultural and religious backgrounds, there was a striking consistency.
Everyone knew the 23rd Psalm.
Many wanted to recite it at moments of great trial. Patients who struggled to remember the names of their children could still declare, "The Lord is my shepherd." People who had long left faith behind still returned to this text. Why is that?
I wonder if the power of this psalm resides partly in the honesty of its words. It does not paint a picture of a world devoid of pain and suffering. After all, at the very center of the psalm is an acknowledgement of the dark valleys of our lives and the enemies -- both physical and spiritual -- we face. God's care for us does not mean that we live in a daily paradise, devoid of all troubles. Instead, Psalm 23 confesses that even in the midst of such tribulations, God remains with us.
Who Is My Shepherd?
What shape then does God's presence take in our lives? Here a reading in 1 John 3:16-24 is most helpful. This passage points to Jesus' sacrifice as the ultimate embodiment of God's love for us. That Jesus laid down his life for us, however, comes with a price. We too must lay down our lives for others. In the terms of Psalm 23, because God walks with us in the shadowed valleys, we too must walk with our neighbors as they struggle. How is God present? God is present through us and through our neighbors.
1 John 3:17 is particularly telling: "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" What then are we to do? "...let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action" (1 John 3:18). In these highly charged political times, what might it look like to be a shepherd for your neighbor? What might it look like to love "not in word or speech, but in truth and action?"
Act Like Your Shepherd: A Reminder In This Political Season
Politics is supposed to serve the common good. These biblical texts remind us that good politics -- that is, faithful politics -- are rooted in love. Too often, when we think politics, we imagine presidential candidates dashing from city to city looking for votes. But politics and politicians are not coequal. Political matters are everywhere.
How do we care for one another? What are our obligations to our neighbors? What does God desire for our lives? How is God our shepherd still? How does God call us to be a balm for the sick and a consoling presence for those who grieve? There may be better places to look for the marriage of faith and politics than in the presidential campaign. We might be better off looking to those who care for their neighbors without asking anything in return.
Such examples of service are a reminder that faith and politics are never too far from one another in American culture. Together, faith and politics can certainly bring out some of our worst demons: intolerance, distrust of neighbors both near and far. However, faith and politics -- in their best sense -- have also inspired some of our best moments. Many of us will immediately think of the prophetic ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. Moved by the legacy of such faithful servants of God and neighbor, there are also innumerable (usually anonymous) people of faith driven by their beliefs and values to help the least fortunate among us.
When faith and politics combine, sometimes -- not often but sometimes -- love is victorious. Power takes a back seat. Ambition loses the race. Instead of the mountaintop of glory, we might choose the deepest valleys. Instead of doing all we can to gather all the world's goods, we might instead become concerned for those in need, for those in want.
In the end, if we but trust God's promises, political dogmas give way. If we but trust that God is with us, the urge to take all we can may slip away. If we but trust that God is our shepherd and that God's call for us is to walk alongside the sick, the broken, and grieving, then love alone remains.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.