Luke 6:20-31 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[a] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
This week Christians all over the world celebrate All Saints’ Day, a holiday in the church calendar where we remember the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and who surround us still. All Saints Day is a reminder that we are not alone, that we have and need each other to know God’s grace. In the high church traditions, there are patron saints who represent God’s grace in every aspect of our lives: there is a saint for workers, a saint for debtors, a saint for immigrants, saints for the grieving. The saints are an eternal public speaking God’s grace to us in every aspect of our lives; they remind us that faith is not just private and personal, but draws us into a communal body. The saints show us that our faith is unavoidably political—there is no aspect of our lives in which we have to be alone. We are called to work for each other’s and our neighbors good as a community. This is the theological background for the practices we’re trying to cultivate here in paying off each others debts and standing in solidarity with workers who are organizing. Because of who the saints have shown us we can be we want to speak in public as witnesses to different kind of world.
But at the same time that our tradition calls us into the politics of the saints, where we enter deeper into the world to open up cracks in the world’s regimes of power, those of us living in the USA in the 20th Century have been told that our faith is private, that it is individual, that it is not supposed to be political. Even people who disagree with that have been formed by habits of worship that make them uncomfortable when certain topics come up in worship. Do we have to be so political?
This idea is relatively new. The church has always offered a vision of what a just society looks like and taught that Christians should be working actively to bring about that society. If the Gospel is true, if Christ sides with the least of these, if the poor, the hungry, and the weeping are truly the ones who are blessed, then Christians should want a world, including laws, that benefits those people. The rhetoric of “keeping politics out of church” arose in the aftermath of the New Deal. The wealthy didn’t like their tax rates being so high, but the New Deal was incredibly popular—it turns out people tend to be in favor of having what they need to survive. So to get politicians who would cut taxes into office, the rich had to find a way to get workers to vote for people who would gut the programs they depend on. How do you do that? Eventually, they found an answer: the church.
Capitalists started organizing with their pastors, who depended on large donations to their church, and many of these pastors were happy to preach that social justice distorted the Gospel of personal salvation. With funding from their wealthy members, these ministers produced curricula for Sunday school and Vacation Bible Study and the Boy Scouts, and they created marketing campaigns—the movie The Ten Commandments came out of these efforts—training Christians in a version of the Gospel in which, one historian writes: “[The] central tenet of Christianity remained the salvation of the individual. If any political and economic system fit with the religious teachings of Christ, it would be to be rooted in a similarly individualistic ethos. Nothing better exemplified such values, [these ministers] insisted, than the capitalist system of free enterprise.”
Any form of collectivity is always corrupt, but individuals acting in freedom are good, so you have to leave politics out of your faith if you don’t want it corrupted. This is how the idea that we have to “leave the politics out of faith” became the primary rhetorical tool that weds the church to conservatism. Separating faith and politic deploys the Gospel to fracture the public so that each of us are scattered and atomized, left to our own devices to navigate the world. I tell this story because I think it’s important to recognize that what we now call the Religious Right, the wedding of Christianity to right-wing politics, was not inevitable or necessary; it was organized and produced. Which means we can organize and produce something different.
Over and against our atomization, we say that the Gospel is unavoidably political. In our Scripture this morning, Jesus doesn’t say “Blessed are the dead, because their souls have escaped their bodies.” He doesn’t say, “Blessed are the well-adjusted, because they know its not getting any better.” He doesn’t say, “Blessed are those who stayed out of the way, they were good citizens.” No, he wants us to work for a world where the poor are blessed, meaning that there are no longer rich and poor (because in Christ there aren’t); a world where the hungry are blessed, meaning that they have food; where the weeping are blessed, meaning that they will laugh; a world where the hated are blessed, meaning that they belong. To say that Jesus is Lord is to imagine that a different kind of world is possible, it’s to imagine that the material structures and hierarchies that harm so many people aren’t necessary, and in fact they are already disintegrating under their own contradictions—and so the Powers need us individualized, they need an atomized public because if we put any kind of pressure on them they will crumble, and then we can begin building new structures. Jesus tells us what a just world would look like and calls us to go to work together for that kind of world now. The Gospel is unavoidably political and that is good news for all of us because it means that we don’t have to go it alone in any of our struggles.
That doesn’t mean that everything that happens under the name “politics” is fitting for what we do as a church. After Jesus tells the disciples who is truly blessed and who is cursed, he gives them some principles for how to go about making that kind of society. He says “if someone strikes you on the cheek, don’t strike back. If someone curses you, pray for them. If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt. Do not hate but love your enemies.” I know these verses are often used to keep quiet those who find themselves on the bottom, the poor and abused and hungry, but I think Jesus is really saying we don’t have to accept the terms of engagement that the world gives us. The kind of life Jesus invites us to practice together does not fit smoothly into everything the world means by politics. The politic of the saints enters deeper into the world to subvert the world as it is. In part, I think this means rejecting two common understandings of politics: brand loyalty and affective reaction.
First, In America, “politics” often means assimilating yourself to one of the two major parties, and you know you are good by your brand loyalty to your party. For whatever goods they might accidentally accomplish, these parties serve the world as it is, so in our atomized state they channel us into antagonisms that distract us from our more fundamental antagonism with the rich while they laugh all the way to the banks they run. Jesus says “Blessed are the poor and the hungry and the hated.” He doesn’t say “Blessed are the rural poor over and against the urban poor.” In the Beatitudes we might find a call to working class solidarity, where in turning the other cheek to ideological antagonism we find ourselves looking clearly at a more fundamental antagonism between those who own what we need to survive and those of us who have to earn wages from them to get what we need.
By saying “love your enemies” Jesus isn’t saying don’t have enemies, he’s not saying just look the other way when people believe or practice things that are deadly for you; but sometimes the people we imagine to be our enemies are not our real enemies, and because they are real people they could change their minds about the things they’re wrong about and then we might in fact find a deep solidarity and discover that we are struggling with many of the same things. So as Christians we don’t want to be co-opted by either of the ruling parties—Jesus wants our politics to be more disruptive than that.
I understand that talking about politics can be stressful, especially over the last couple of years. And maybe you agree with all of this, but you’re also thinking, “I just want church to be an hour in the week where I don’t have to get frothed up over what the most powerful man in the world whose brain is made of Jello is doing this morning.” I’m actually really sympathetic to that. If the church’s politics shouldn’t get sucked into the two-party system, it also shouldn’t just try to match pitch with the frenetic pace of the news cycle. Whenever something bad happens, someone posts on social media, “If your pastor doesn’t talk about X, find a new church!” I get the impulse—it’s a rejection of the a-political habits we just talked about—but that kind of thinking puts the church in a reactionary position, where we’re always responding to things we’re not really prepared to deal with, and so the best we can do is make sure people feel the right emotions. But our emotions are not a politics, they don’t do anything, and in fact they often end up serving the status quo, paralyzing us before the multiplicity of all the awful things happening around us.
That’s what some people think it means to be political as a church, that I stand here and make sure you feel righteous about feeling bad about the things you’re supposed to feel bad about by playing woke mad libs with the news cycle; and I worry that this is just another form of atomization, that we’re a bunch of individuals trying to coordinate our feelings to this flurry of activity that is designed to exhaust us. The novelist Ben Lerner just published a book called The Topeka School where in one section he’s remembering from now his days as a high school debater and a strategy called “the spread” where a debater would speak as quickly as possibly making as many arguments as possible so that their opponent wouldn’t be able to respond to everything. He writes: “The most common criticism of the spread was [that no one talks that way in real life]. But even the adolescents knew that wasn’t true, that corporate persons deployed a version of the spread all the time: for they heard the spoken warnings at the end of the increasingly common television commercials for prescription drugs…They were at least vaguely familiar with the “fine print” one received from financial institutions and health-insurance companies; the last thing one was supposed to do was comprehend them. These types of disclosure were designed to conceal; they exposed you to information that should you refuse to challenge the institution in question, would be treated like a “dropped argument” in a fast round of debate—you have already conceded the validity of the point by failing to address it when it was presented. It’s no excuse that you didn’t have the time. Even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting “spread” in their daily lives…”
We don’t want to avoid the realities of our day, we don’t want to be too afraid of conflict to talk about hard things together—but we also don’t want to get spread. The daily outrages are flies buzzing around a pile of crap, and we’re just gonna wear ourselves out swatting at flies when maybe what we need to do is ignore them and go get a shovel.
We have to desire a politics that exceeds much of what passes for politics in our day. We don’t work for the world we desire by going to the top or by answering every question those at the top put to us. We do it by descending, by joining those on the bottom, by struggling together. If the poor, the hungry, and hated are blessed, we’d better join in with what they’re doing, because if you’re a wage earner you are already them even if you don’t want to admit that to yourself. Here, we try to do this in a small way by paying off each others debts. But we also know that’s not enough, that that’s a sign pointing toward what is possible. So in the coming weeks, we’re going to be talking more about what it could look like for Jubilee to support workers in our midst and in community who are struggling to organize unions. Working people are telling us that they’re hungry, that they’re poor, that they’re bosses hate them even when they smile at them, and supporting them in their struggles, which are our struggles, could be a way of practicing politics below the powers of this world. Where the world would atomize us, strip us of our communal bonds to one another, we have to forge those bonds all over again, learn practices of solidarity, claim each other as a public, a commons, a body, to be saints for one another.
In the last chapter of The Topeka School, the narrator goes with his wife and two daughters to a protest at the ICE facilities in New York City, not far from Zuccoti Park where Occupy Wall Street was based. A multitude of citizens occupied the space, gumming up the works so that the officers had to go hide in their offices, while the people sang “This Little Light of Mine” over their calls to disperse. When they were called to disperse, they got closer to each other instead. He says, “One of the organizers…yelled, “Mic check,” and we all yelled it back. [This was the] “human microphone,” the “people’s mic,” wherein those gathered around a speaker repeat what the speaker says in order to amplify a voice without permit-requiring equipment. It embarrassed me, it always had, but I forced myself to participate, to be part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning slowly how to speak again, in the middle of the spread.”
After decades of atomization, individuation, of being taught that’s what faithfulness is, may we be unafraid to become the great cloud of witnesses that we are, practicing the politics of the saints, unapologetic about standing with each other, unrelenting in our struggle for a world where the poor are blessed, a world that looks more like God’s kingdom. Amen.