Sacramental Imagination for Politics
The most political thing I’ve done this week is baptize children. Seven children actually, including one infant.
I love the image of burial and resurrection with Christ that we witness in our one hundred and fifty gallon stock tank we place at the entrance of the church. It’s one of my favorite celebrations to lead as a priest. It’s a funeral and birth piled into one moment, and the whole family is there to see it. Kids sit around the tank, new spiritual parents, brothers and sisters are made—all watch with anticipation. Some gasp when I swoop the infant in the water, others cry tears of joy. Those poor newcomers, realizing they’ve found themselves in a very intimate family moment. It’s overwhelming, mysterious, and exhilarating to witness. And it’s all highly political.
“Secular” politics, William Cavanaugh describes is a “theology in disguise,” where for example, “the modern state is built upon a soteriology of rescue from violence.” Imagining the church as apolitical or neutral when it comes to political agendas is to misunderstand, and not take very seriously, modern politics as theology in disguise. When we succumb to the myth that “secular” politics are separate from religion, we lessen the scandal of a crucified God who was broken and poured out for the life of the world, and who’s political agenda is to reconcile all things to himself. For this reason, the church understands the sacraments to be the most public and confrontational of political acts.
In the sacrament of Holy Baptism a Kingdom politic is underway. It brings the reality of the Gospel to us in the present. As a baptized people, we are co-opted into a Kingdom that doesn’t escape the earthly city but interrupts and subverts its false politics. The native cultural imagination we inhabit as Americans, with its rampant individualism, and false narrative of salvation in a Pax Americana, is patiently but certainly overcome by the true politics of the Kingdom seen in the sacraments. The liturgy is not a benign or “neutral” story-telling–quite the opposite–it is a Kingdom politic in motion.
In the liturgy the worshipping church regularly demonstrates a permanent overthrow of power, a reconfiguration of economic practice and wealth, a foreign policy of reconciliation, and the forgiveness of sin through the person of true peace, Jesus Christ. Our story is not merely talked about or read in a prayer book but demonstrated and enacted in the liturgy and the sacraments. There is a temptation to privatize the Gospel or somehow “keep politics out of the church.” I get pastors not endorsing certain candidates or using the pulpit to push an agenda, certainly a bad idea. But we should be careful not to decouple the church and politics, lest we domesticate the Church, or as Cavanaugh says, “purchase freedom of religion by handing the Body over to the State.” In truth, through Holy Baptism and Eucharist, we are made living members of a Body that resists the false politics and violence of the earthly city and demonstrates God’s way of doing things.
Baptism as a Public Politic
Saint Augustine calls the the liturgy the res publica because it is the enactment of the Gospel which concerns every inch of heaven and earth. There is nothing more public than that which concerns everything. If this is true, then the baptisms on Sunday were more a public political act than anything we experienced on Super Tuesday. In a non-threatened, non-anxious, but highly confrontational way, the worshipping church announced that the earthly city is not the true public thing and we are not it’s possession. Rather, we have been buried in the watery grave and resurrected with Christ, who lays claim on every inch of the created order. There is nothing that escapes the concern of Christ and His Kingdom.
So, the prayers of the people, the incense, kneeling in confession, the pronouncement of forgiveness and the Peace, the fraction and distribution, the dismissal—these moments are the starting point for any subsequent political involvement in the earthly city. The liturgy and sacraments form our primary politic. They locate our true citizenship beyond the confines of the earthly empire, in the family of God as his adopted sons and daughters. We participate in the politics of our neighborhood and country primarily as those who have been soaked with baptismal waters, as a people not our own. We don’t need to pursue influence over political and social powers, rather, we pursue becoming the kinds of people that participate in God’s way of doing power, speaking truth in love, resisting institutionalized violence, and demonstrating the Gospel.
Ambassadors of the Kingdom
These living members of Christ’s Body are then let loose in our workplaces and voting booths, sent as ambassadors of truly Good News. In a way, this means our political leanings and opinions aren’t the most important thing to consider. Who cares what we think! Ambassadors are not sent to relay their opinion but to represent the One who sent them. The Christian way is not to be constrained to the polarities of modern politics but instead wrestle with scripture, consult with the Christian tradition, and mine the depths of the Gospel, in order to proclaim and live out the priorities of God’s Kingdom. Our challenge is not to pick a party but to remember whose we are, who we represent, and the Kingdom we have been adopted into. We are ambassadors of a King not independent lobbyists. We have passed from death to life, from darkness into light, soaked from head-to-toe in the life-giving waters of God. We have been caught up and sealed forever in His most public and highly political Kingdom.
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