Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Church or State? Where’s Your Faith?

By Jack Davidson

Where do we put more faith: our government or our religious tradition?

We are on the brink of a radical revolution. We are at the defining moment of a generation. We are poised for monumental social transformation. So which institution do we believe is more capable of effectively enacting that progressive social reform, our government or our religious traditions?

Whatever your personal answer, our societal answer is clearly given in the type of questions we keep asking about the Occupy movement: What is their political platform? What policy are they proposing? What good are these liberal deadbeats doing? Are they even organized?

We’ve heard these questions over-and-over again throughout the past few months, as people watch the Occupy protests from afar. We may have even asked these questions ourselves. Clearly, the general sentiment assumes that any protest/revolution/reform worth our time and effort is a political protest/revolution/reform.

I look back two thousand years, and I bet people back then were asking the same kind of questions of the Jesus movement. I think people watched Palm Sunday happen from a safe distance. I think people looked down on this chaotic crowd occupying the streets of Jerusalem.

And I think they asked the same questions:

What do they hope to achieve with these hippy drum circles? What good is a palm branch to the poor? When are they going to stop all of this chanting and get a real job? What is their political agenda anyway?

Here’s what’s happening.

People are looking at the Occupy movement, and they expect political action, just as two thousands years ago people looked towards Jesus hoping for political action. Just as the crowds were two thousand years ago, people today will be sorely disappointed when they realize that this movement is not meant to be just a political movement, but so much more.

And so it was, just a few days after greeting him as a peasant king – when given the choice between Jesus of Nazareth, a religious prophet, or Jesus Barabbas, a violent political rebel – the people chose the political rebel. The people chose to let Jesus of Nazareth die and set Jesus Barabbas free. The people chose to let their faith die and their politics be their savior.

And so here we are now, watching the Occupy movement unfold on YouTube or CNN. And we ask: what is their political agenda?

For some reason, we believe that any protest must be political in nature. For some reason, we believe that the most effective revolutions are political revolutions. For some reason, we’re still choosing Jesus Barabbas over Jesus of Nazareth. For some reason we are putting more faith in our politics than we put into our religious traditions.

Look at our liberal churches. When we try to organize around social justice issues, so often we organize to lobby congress, protest congress, send petitions to congress. Now I think churches organizing to lobby and/or petition congress is a quintessential element of our faith. In fact, many churches need to do more of this type of work. But I also think that many of our more liberally active churches are selling ourselves short. We are organizing to petition an outside group to do the work that we should be and can be doing ourselves as the Church.

I have been psyched over the past few months to discover more and more liberal Christian websites. Simultaneously, I have been more and more dismayed to find that 90% of the posts on these sites can be boiled down to “Fuck the GOP” (this claim is not meant to be a factual statement).

When did we become the official religion of the Democratic Party? Important as it is to act as a safeguard against homophobic, sexist, racist, and economically unjust political maneuvers, we should be spending an even greater amount of time self-reflecting and acting as the safeguard against the homophobic, sexist, racist, and economically unjust tendencies of our own religious traditions. Important as it is to push significant progressive political reform, we should be spending just as much or even more effort cultivating communities that live out those progressive ideals in the everyday.

It’s as if we don’t have any faith in our own institutions to be agents of change. It’s as if we believe that the very churches we attend are powerless beyond the walls of our sanctuary. It’s as if our churches are choosing Jesus Barabbas over Jesus of Nazareth.

And after two thousand years, what affect has Jesus Barabbas made? Where are Barabbas’ followers? What good are they doing in this world today?

And yet here we are, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. We may not always do right by his name, but often when we stray, it is because someone is trying to use the Church for political gain. We may not always do right by his name, but unlike Barabbas’ followers, we are still here. We are still striving to be the good news in this world. We are still trying to heal the broken-heartedness of creation.

What good is a marriage equality bill if our churches are still turning away GLBTQ couples? What good is an economic justice bill if the CEO in our pew is still making exponentially more than his or her lowest-paid employee? What good are government social services if our churches aren’t also coming up with creative solutions to the eternal need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless?

We shouldn’t have to wait, and protest, and wait, and wait some more for the government to change the world. We, the Church, should be working to change the world now. Progressive reform doesn’t have to be all political; progressive reform can be social, economic, religious, racial, sexual, cultural, musical, etc. Or, in other words, Church.

So here we are. Occupy protestors have a significant opportunity here. All of the news organizations are waiting to see what will happen. The nation is waiting to see how the Occupy movement will define itself. Will it be the liberal counterpart to the Tea Party? Will it propose specific legislation? Will it be a significant political force?

I hope not. I hope the Occupy movement will be so much more than a political revolution. I hope it will be a full-scale cultural revolution. I think it already is that cultural revolution. But for some reason we want to dumb it down to the narrow scope of contemporary American politics. For some reason we can’t see that a cultural revolution can be so much more than a political revolution, just like Jesus’ own disciples had trouble understanding that his message went so far beyond the political realm.

You can legislate all you want, and the 1% will still find the loopholes to stay in the 1%. But if you change the culture, if you change the conversation, if you change the hearts of the people in the 1%, if you reform the values system along with the legal system, well then you are doing the holiest work of all. Then you are doing the work God meant for the Church to be doing. Then you are creating the kind of change that will echo throughout the next two thousand years.

If we learned anything from the story of Jesus of Nazareth, it’s this: don’t make the same mistake the crowds made two thousand years ago. Don’t choose Jesus Barabbas. Don’t water down this palpable, necessary, holy message of mercy and justice by limiting it to a mere political force.

Be the crowd that chooses Jesus of Nazareth. Be the full-scale cultural evolution, not a fleeting trend. Be a movement, not a petition. Be the water-into-wine party, not a political party. Be the Progressive Church as God meant it to be.

Jack Davidson is Associate Minister at the First Church of Christ, Congregational UCC in Redding, CT. He recently completed a MDiv from Harvard Divinity School, and also earned a teaching license through Harvard's Program in Religious Studies and Education. You can often catch him in a canoe, barefoot and bearded with a musical instrument in hand. Yep, he's totally that guy.


  1. "Progressive reform doesn’t have to be all political; progressive reform can be social, economic, religious, racial, sexual, cultural, musical, etc. Or, in other words, Church."

    What a great line!

  2. Thoughtful and thought provoking! Yep He is that guy. Strong work deserving strong thanks.

  3. Well written...what a closing! Preach on!

  4. "..if you reform the values system along with the legal system, well then you are doing the holiest work of all."

    In other words, you cannot just change the institutions/structures of society. You must change the belief system as well. The social sciences/humanities will side with you on this Jack; a change in belief systems persists, a change in structural systems sways like a pendulum more or less.

    A really unique perspective - I'll be putting it on a couple commenting sites!

    Peter G.

  5. I do hope we at least start the process by believing in each other instead of our institutions, and at that point, then community centers like the church will play a key role in municipal communication. However, i think you have framed this well by choosing to use the phrase 'religious traditions' instead of 'religious beliefs,' it is very true i think, that tradition will be the thing that saves us from social chaos, unrest, and crime as the revolution continues to gain momentum. I am sure it is only a short while until everyone must begin to occupy a place to participate, both in rural and urban environments. As long as we stay flexible, i think we can follow the flow away from Barabbas.

    Thanks for a crisp perspective.

  6. You've become the guy who can write something like that -- that's the guy you are. And I'm really proud of you.