I had big ugly back surgery the summer after my high school graduation followed by a five month convalescence at home. I was bored out of my skull. Most of my friends had left town for their first semester at college. I was stuck. I read the entire public library. I examined stamps. I practiced guitar. I temporarily learned to play the mandolin. I learned to cook. I was lost looking for a time-kill in a pre-digital world.
When the doorbell rang, I got off off the hardboard reinforced daybed as quickly as I could and hauled my back brace encumbered self to the door. I didn't care who you were, we were going to talk. Mormons? Come on in! Jehovah's Witnesses? Come on in! Members of the evangelical soul-harvesting committee from whatever church in town? Come on in!
My mother would often return from school to find me engaged in theological discussions with, well, God knows who. I'd only been a Presbyterian for a little over three years, so I wasn't armed with all the rhetorical power of Calvin, but I did manage to ask a few good questions. These discussions were a great eye-opener to me. I had been reared a Baptist and had been taught that there were certain absolute truths. The Mormons left me Books of Mormon, which contained absolute truth. The Jehovah's Witnesses left me with copies of The Watchtower and Awake, both of which were guides to the absolute truth. I had more truths than one 18 year-old should have to handle.
There were things that we talked about with which I didn't agree, but I never questioned the right for others to be "wrong." I hope they gave me the same consideration.
Today, I rarely go out the front door of our house. I go out the back. But, I came in the front door a couple of Saturdays ago and found a copy of "The Watchtower," the Jehovah's Witness publication on the porch. I thanked God for two things. One, I was not at home and didn't have to answer the doorbell. (Hey, things change over forty years.) Two, the magazine had a cover story of "Religion and Politics" and I had no idea what I was going to write about this month after the prior three NorthPark articles on the topic.
I read it with great interest, thinking that such an evangelical organization would have opinions wildly different than my own. Wrong again.
The message I received was "be a good citizen and try to live by the rules Jesus gave us in scripture." I'm on board with that. Well, there was a lot of stuff about the devil working hard in our midst and the need to fight evil, but that's okay. I'll let them handle the devil wrestling.
Other than that, it was very calm. One of the articles said, "Jesus sought to change hearts, not political institutions."
They go on to say, "In their preaching work today, Jehovah's Witnesses strive to imitate Jesus. They are moved to alleviate suffering by giving practical help to individuals in need. But, the Witnesses do not strive to eliminate the world's injustices. They believe that God's kingdom will erase the causes of all suffering."
I'm okay with the first part of that. But, I do think that we should strive to eliminate the world's injustices. I also believe that many of the world's injustices are brought about by the politics. If Dr. King had believed that all laws should be obeyed and we should wait for the kingdom, social progress would not have been made. Non-violent protest and civil disobedience are necessary in a free society. Christians need to vote their conscience, and speak truth to power. What seems to be a problem today, as it was when I came off the daybed, is "whose truth?"
Another part of the world's injustices are brought about by religion, particularly religion with political power.
Many nations that place women in a subordinate position are theocracies. The persecution of minority religions are condoned by the state. Two institutions as powerful as religion and state should always be separated. The combination of the two is not something to be desired, but something to be feared. The Spanish Inquisition would never have happened without total government support.
Many of the original thirteen colonies had official state religions and if one was not a member of that particular denomination, one was barred from public office or public service.
We can thank the Baptists of Virginia for the inclusion of freedom of religion in the first amendment. They were tired of being pushed around by the official Anglican church and refused to support the approval of the new constitution without the guarantee. Some prominent Baptists may need to be reminded that keeping government out of religion was once their cause.
Again, whose truth? Even churches called Presbyterian can't agree. Those who think that the establishment of a "Christian nation" would be a great thing need to stop and think "whose Christianity?"
"Jesus sought to change hearts, not political institutions."
God bless the Jehovah's Witnesses and all others who work to alleviate suffering, no matter the details of their theology. Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Agnostic, Atheist, all need to be free to approach healing the world in the way they see fit. When enough hearts change, political institutions will change.