Monday, June 23, 2008
The time was late February 1979. Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtela had become Pope John Paul II less than three months earlier. Now he was making his first overseas trip to the Western Hemisphere.
I was there standing on the tarmac at the Mexico City airport when John Paul's plane landed and he de-planed. A few days later I followed the pope's limo to Puebla, Mexico to hear some of the most profound words the pontiff ever spoke during his nearly 28-year reign:
"Jesus Christ was no political revolutionary. And His priests are not to be political revolutionaries either."
Spoken in Spanish but translated quickly in several versions into English, the words shocked those hoping the new, youthful, energetic pope would cast his lot with the Liberation theologians, who were stirring excitement in that day with their talk of blending church and secular politics into a potent political revolutionary force particularly in South America but also worldwide.
Some tried to label the Liberation theologians as heroes ushering in a new era of church activism. Others tried to label them as socialists, communists or simply political revolutionaries. Meanwhile some Roman Catholic priests and leaders were enamored with the idea of marching off to political war. John Paul put a stop to it.
Ironically, John Paul II will always be remembered for his impact on secular politics because of the role he played as the ethical and spiritual voice in the downfall of the Evil Empire, as President Ronald Reagan called the former Soviet Union. But he did it his way--not following the path of the Liberation theologians of his time. He did it by firmly stating over and over his beliefs and positions on moral, social and ethical issues. And he did it in his usual charming fashion. At no time did I ever witness him pander after any politicians, though he seemed to greet and treat them all with civility and cordiality.
The pope's words are similar to a statement I've made often both in print and in person: "Jesus Christ was neither a Democrat nor a Republican." With the race for the occupant of the White House after next January 20 heating up, you'll hear me repeat these words many times over the next months.
So often we Christians try to re-shape Jesus into our image, like the Medieval artists who fashioned the famous artwork that makes Jesus and His disciples look like Venice merchants in Medieval attire, complete with Medieval hairstyles, Medieval clothing, and so forth. American Christian leaders from both the left and the right have become adept at this same slight of hand. Each wants to re-make Jesus to match his or her own personal political preference.
Who would Jesus have voted for in the presidential primaries just ended? No one, because he would have found registering as either a Democrat or a Republic—a prerequisite for voting in many primaries—to be difficult.
By their very nature, political parties are born of compromise and political realities in order to win elections. No political party is 100% Christian or reflective of Christ's teachings. Sadly, some on the Religious Right and the Religious Left seem to have forgotten that.
Like John Paul, Jesus stood above the political fray. Yet His words dramatically impacted political leaders of His day. Jesus' teachings through the following centuries brought about a massive revolution in thought, belief, culture and action that people in His day would have found difficult to imagine.
During this political season in the U.S., may religious leaders once again hear and heed the words of John Paul spoken almost 30 years go. "Jesus Christ was no political revolutionary (and I add "neither was He a Republican nor a Democrat"). And his priests (pastors and other church leaders) are not to be political revolutionaries (party operatives) either."