Christian Ethics and Politics – A Christian Ethics Perspective on the Politics of this Country

thomas110_1027092Love – it isn’t easy. Possibly one of the hardest things Jesus ever told us to do was to tell us to treat others as we would like to be treated, and this fact is no more apparent than in today’s political climate. Rev. Ronald Bonner, the pastor at Atonement Lutheran Church in Atlanta, Georgia, has a reflection on what the Christian ethic of love has to say to us in our time and place, and how much our time and place needs it. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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“Be imitators of God, therefore as dearly beloved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Ephesians 5:1 NIV

At the center of Christian ethics is the concept of love. 

Christian love is not the sense of emotions or sentimentality but love is a construct of caring for another to the point of personal sacrifice for the well-being of another.  The soldier who dives on a grenade, like Milton Lee Olive III, to save the lives of his fellow soldiers is a tangible example of love, caring for others, which is the at the center of Christian ethics.  Love and loving others was at the core of Jesus’ preaching and teaching.  Since Jesus espoused a love ethic, it is easy to state that at the heart of Christian ethics is love. But in today’s world it appears that love has been replaced with a self-serving concept of personal achievement, even it means sacrificing others at the altar of personal success. As the theological consortium of Rose Royce would conclude regarding the appearance of Christian ethics: “There’s a vacancy Love don’t live here anymore.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer posits that the absence of Christ, and thus love, in the Christian message raises the possibility that Christianity becomes nothing more than distilled self-expression and thus “radically religionless.” This would leave a state of liminality in the practice of Christian ethics and would lend itself to popularity rather than the rigors of discipline or discipleship, producing a fruitful harvest of what Bonhoeffer would call “cheap grace.” It is evident that we are living in an age where the Christian message of being imitators of Christ as written in Ephesians 5:1 has little relevancy in our business or political ethics.

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The lay-out of a slave ship.

Historically, Christianity has brought the world genocide, racism, sexism, classism and many phobias against same gender loving and queer people. But let’s refer to that as “religionless Christianity” merely a virus-infected form of behavior that is Christianity in name only, seeing as it does not conform to the concept of love, but instead embraces the globalization of masculine hetero-hegemonic white supremacy.  Much like the purportedly Christian-inspired Doctrine of Discovery which authorized and gave birth to global racism by stealing land in the Americas and then stealing and enslaving people from Africa to work and develop them.

 

Today ‘s corrosive political climate clearly reveals that the core of politics is not to represent the needs of the people but to assert coercion in the search for power. Politics in today’s world does not reflect the nobility of the words of the shapers of the United States Constitution.  The current political climate stands in stark contrast to the vision embedded in what was written in founding the country, despite the injustices that occurred at that time:

“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” 

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Outside the Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, PA.

 

The vision always was larger and deeper than the visionaries for even George Washington who held persons enslaved in 1790 wrote in a letter to Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, “Happily the Government of the United States… Gives to Bigotry no sanction, to Persecution no assistance.” 

These words have lost their value in today’s political climate as have the words of Ephesians 5:1 in the expression of Christian ethics, especially for those who support policies that do harm to those who are the most vulnerable in our society.  We are under siege, living in a Reinhold Niebuhr-defined state of political coercion. A state of coercion, not for the benefit of the people or for bringing justice, as was the case during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The siege and coercion we live under is for the benefit of a hegemonic elite that seeks to jettison the doctrines of consent and the edict of “We the People” for personal gain.

Today, those called politicians, especially those that have served for more than two decades, have become anesthetized to the mores of civil engagement in the pursuit of power, performing not for the will of the people but for the societal elites that contribute to their campaigns and desired lifestyles. These in office are further anesthetized to the pain and suffering that their callous disregard for others is causing.  They behave like myopic malevolent minions focused on establishing an oligarchy form of government, where the personal earned rights of its citizens are subject to elimination or eradication.

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The 13 white, rich, male GOP senators who composed – in secret – the Senate version of the American Health Care Act.

We see this callous disregard in the current Congress’ desire to undo the Affordable Care Act. Our current Congress is led by a man who for the past eight years has had a single mission to serve as an obstructionist to the opposition party and, in particular, the former President of the United States. This behavior is inimical to the benefit of the people that he took an oath to protect. But in the pursuit of control, the fact that his leadership could cause 33 million people to lose health care benefits is of no concern to him or those who follow him. This partisan blindness to the welfare of the people is akin to the apathy for others displayed in the famous Milgram studies of the 1960s. In that experiment people were instructed by a person in authority to administer electric shocks to learners who got answers to the test questions wrong. The range of volts or shocks ranged from five to 450, with 450 being considered lethal. In the initial study 65% of the test subjects were willing to administer the lethal dose when encouraged by the tester who was viewed as an authority figure.

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In today’s political climate those in Congress are willing to administer the lethal dose by rejecting health care, by rolling back Food Stamps, selling federal land to developers, rolling back EPA guidelines, dismantling international relationships dismantling Social Security, and weakening Medicare.  And the so-called opposition party mostly remains silent as this destruction becomes more evident and this disease spreads to local politics as well.  An example is what is called the school to prison pipeline, where rural America’s economy is supported by urban center decline.

Edmund Burke stated: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (people) to do nothing.” Albert Einstein put it this way: “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlewaithe would say “if one does not dissent then one is a collaborator.”  Our political climate has become a circus of those who coerce and those who collaborate.

When seeing “Christians” endorsing the policies of despair and those who initiate them we must ask questions about the validity of Christian ethics as a moral compass.  The questions for Christians are: How do we rescue the church from its historical and current level of collaboration with coercion for the sake of power and personal gain? Where do we engage our society not merely in social media or written dissent but in actual action driven resistance to the current climate of political balkanization? The answer is the church can’t rest on its indifference because that is what caused God’s wrath to be poured out on Sodom.  Good people who became indifferent to the conditions of others because of the blessings that they have received.  Ezekiel 16:49 reads: “this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters (sons) had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

Our political process has become a process of coercion and indifference which is the opposite of the love ethic expressed by Howard Thurman and displayed by Fannie Lou Hamer, Marian Wright Edelman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, including Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.  I believe that Dr. King, would liken the current political process to cannibalism at the dawn of the age.  Our current political climate and policies are cannibalizing our future for the sake of the few. If these policies and the current political direction are maintained, they will force many innocent people into a life of poverty and facing a constant state of coercion and terror.  Christian ethics must resist the collaboration with evil and indifference and seek to eliminate and not exacerbate injustice, poverty and apathy in the 21st century.

 


pastorfotoRonald S. Bonner Sr., is the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Atlanta, GA.  And a Director of Evangelical Mission/Assistant to the Bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And the author of two books, No Bigotry Allowed and The Seat.

 

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Bearing the Crosses – Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas

LT NY Eve March 2016.jpgI’ve marched a lot of marches in my time, and for many causes, but none quite like the one I took part the morning of this New Year’s Eve, here in downtown Chicago. I won’t give away much here – so as to point you to the article – but it is a perfect example of what I myself, as a professor and a womanist public theologian, must do; as well as the burden and responsibility the we as religious leaders must shoulder for the sake of our calls. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


For many people, an annual “New Year” is an opportunity to start over and try new things. It’s a “reboot” that carries the memory of documents on which we are still working and, at the same time, also allows us to insert a clean blank document to create something new.

Each New Year’s Eve I attend a “Watch Night” service at my church – an annual liturgy in African American churches where members gather to remember their ancestors who “watched” the clock strike 12 a.m. on January 1, 1862; the day the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, freeing enslaved Africans.[1]

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Artistic rendering of the one of the original “Watch Night” services in 1862.

It’s difficult to go into a new year without any encumbrances. After all, a clock striking 12-midnight rings in a new year but does not completely reset life. The everyday life of once enslaved, now free, Africans did not change substantially. People of African descent still had to fight for freedom in the ensuing years.

But it’s paradoxical, this idea that the New Year gives us a clean blank document for a fresh start while simultaneously carrying old files that may go back for decades.[2] Many of us take the time to delete old files, but that is time consuming so our hopes to leave behind the old and make room for take up the new are dashed. We want to erase and/or forget, but we have files or memories that tie us to old realities. How do we make a fresh start? For me, the answer lies in the scripture Dr. Otis Moss III preached on during the Watch Service on New Year’s Eve just three days ago, Isaiah 43:18:

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”

On New Year’s Eve I decided to answer a call made by Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church for people of faith across the city to a March in memory of the 800+ people who died by violence in 2016.[3] I went downtown to the designated meeting place across from the Tribune Building on North Michigan Avenue at 11 a.m., expecting this march to be like others I’ve participated – where people with common knowledge about a national issue and who share also common interests and outrage about that issue, gather to protest by walking and chanting in public – bringing attention to a systemic issue that unfairly impacts particular groups of people.

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This march, however, was different from others in which I have participated.

To begin with upon arrival I noticed that there were hundreds of crosses with the names of each one of the 800 people who had been killed, and many of them had pictures of the deceased along with an inscription of their age and date of death. I was deeply moved and stood surveying the large number of crosses reading the names and looking at the faces. I walked over to one of the women leaders and asked how I could help.  She told me to help the family members of the deceased find the cross with the name of their loved one on it. To provide an example, she showed me her son’s cross with his photo on it. I took a deep breath and knew I was in for an experience I had not expected.

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It suddenly hit me this march was not a typical protest, but rather a witness to the world of the death of nearly 800 people in our city within one calendar year. These deaths occurred in a time of peace, but in a city with war zones located on the West and South Sides, where predominately black and brown people live. I thought of apartheid in South Africa and First Nation Peoples in this country where people of color were forced to live respectively in so-called Home Lands in South Africa, or on reservations in the US. In both cases, large segments of the citizenry did not see those subjected to injustice as well as in most cases, residing in intolerable living conditions. If we do not see vulnerable people, we cannot have a relationship with and care for our neighbor.

Saturday’s march was a massive pastoral care and justice event where family members who lost loved gathered with others who also experienced the death of a beloved, often a child. In addition, there were people like me who came to witness, participate, and support the efforts of Father Pfleger who said God would not rest until God’s precious creation (humans) made in God’s image were vindicated.  I saw people express profound grief and pain and although I was not their pastor, I acted as such – reaching out to these children of God, our siblings who cried on my shoulder. In response, I cried with and breathed with/for them when flowing tears kept them from breathing themselves.

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The view of Trump Tower facing south along Wacker Drive.

All of this happened in a downtown location where the letters T-R-U-M-P could be seen sprawled across a building owned by the president-elect. I knew that the area where we marched had the potential to open new possibilities to curb deaths in the New Year, but would they?

I had my doubts.

About 5 minutes before the march commenced others like myself were asked to carry the cross of a deceased person whose family had not yet shown up or were unable to attend. I carried the cross of a 22-year young woman named Courtney Copeland. The experience of carrying a cross with a heart bearing the name of a person who died a violent death was for me a profound experience. As a theologian of the Cross, I could only think of Jesus bearing a much bigger cross for me/humanity. I remembered that Jesus’ cross had “King of the Jews” inscribed at the top rather than his name. I recalled, as well, that Simon of Cyrene (Matthew 27:32) was pulled from the crowd and forced to carry Jesus’ cross – then the hymn with a first verse that poignantly asks,  “Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free,” sprang into my head.

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I thought, “Must these families carry the cross of their son/daughter/brother/sister/uncle/aunt/niece/nephew/cousin alone?”

As we walked, some mentioned the weight of cross and how heavy they were to carry. Reverend Jesse Jackson responded, “The crosses are heavy, but not as heavy as a casket.” That comment put things in perspective and helped us to lean into the task at hand. Hundreds of people marched down Michigan Avenue— the Mag Mile, where more than 460 retailers, like Apple, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue had stores.[4] It seemed odd to be in such setting, but I realized that it was indeed the best backdrop to expose the tragic reality of 800+ violent deaths in Chicago in 2016.

How do we make a new start in 2017 when we have memories grounded in historical fact that death claimed the lives of 800+ people, in the city where our seminary is located, and where so many churches have buildings with congregations. Can you imagine what a difference we can make? I’ve always wanted for the entire city to stop for one minute in a moment of silence for those killed. With all of us pitching in, we can do much, much more to love our neighbor.  May the prophet Amos words: “But let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24) join the paradox of Isaiah’s words, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”

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Me and Courtney’s cross.

Most of us cannot forget former things even though dwelling on the past will not change it. I hope and, I pray your hope as well, comes from the Triune God who speaks to us this day in this New Year, 2017, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” May we give witness to the New Thing God is doing in 2017 for it will spring up over and over again. Hopefully we will perceive it.

May we be blessed to do “God’s work with Our Hands” in 2017 with boldness that we’ve never seen before. The days ahead will call for it!


Dr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, scholars and communities as a scholar for almost twenty years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. An ordained Methodist pastor for 35 years with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.


[1] President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation eliminating slavery in Confederate states but not in non-dissenting slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. (From Equal Justice Initiative Calendar, January 1, 2017).

[2] The last time I checked my “All my files,” I noted that some go back to 2008! What am I holding on to, and why are these documents so important that I cannot delete them?

[3] 2016 Stats-Chicago Murder, Crime and Mayhem_HeyJackass! Accessed January 2, 2017.

[4] See via an article in the Chicago Tribune: “Loved ones of people killed in 2016 carry more than 750 crosses down Magnificent Mile,” which has a video of the March. If you look carefully you will see ‘yours truly’ in the second roll. Fellow LSTC faculty member Klaus-Peter Adam was at the march as well.