All Politics is Local

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

November 19, 2000

Romans 13:1-7; Luke 4:14-30


Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our salvation. Amen.


Have you seen these headlines - "BUSH WINS" (all caps) - "Florida Clinches Presidency for Texas Governor" (subhead) - November 8? (Home Final Edition). Or how about the later edition of the same paper - "Too Close to Call?"

Or how about November 9 - "Waiting, Wondering" (two caps) "Recount under way; suit filed" (subhead)?

Or the next morning - November 10 - "Tighter than ever" (only one cap) "Bush, Gore prepare for extended battle over Florida"(subhead)?

Or five days later - November 15 -(3/4 headline), "Bush ahead at deadline"; yesterday - November 18 - (less than half) - "Courts block declaration of President" - with a photograph of Buckeye fans and the real headline - "Welcome to the Game" - By this point you may have seen the Newsweek cartoon with hands holding up "Dewey defeats Truman defeats Dewey defeats Truman . . . "

In case you've been out of the universe the past 12 days, you might not know that there is no clear President-elect for the term beginning January 14, 2001. This has brought on many different reactions, mostly led by the political pundits and comedians. Some have suggested calm while the courts resolve the crisis. Others have suggested that Bush govern the Red States on the Electoral College Map while Gore Govern the Blue ones. Or that they share the Presidency in a sort of "odd Couple" sort of way. Some have suggested no President, then there is one person I read who suggested congressional vote to allow President Clinton to continue into his third term.

Yesterday's Columbus Dispatch even picked up on an e-mail that my wife had received last Thursday, with the "Forum" headline, "Brit Offers Americans a Royal Solution." The editorial, with a by-line attributed to Holger Jensen at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, declares that her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has issued a notice of revocation of independence in which the Queen will immediately resume monarchical rule over all the states, commonwealths, and territories, including New Jersey. The transition to a British Crown Dependency includes sixteen acts by her royal highness which should be read and followed in detail (and thoroughly enjoyed!).

Yes, on November 19, we find ourselves reflecting on former Speaker of House Tip O'Neill's words, "All Politics is Local." That's right! The Presidency has come down to a handful of precincts in a handful of counties in one state, Florida. Imagine that. After close to 100 million votes cast nationwide by November 7, the future leadership of the Presidency comes down to a few hundred votes in a few precincts in a few counties. Perhaps it is time to take an accounting of our own political landscape and the leadership that we bring to bear in our town.

I went to Macalester College where Jean Adams' father was the College Chaplain for many years. Jean came to visit Macalester whenever she was able with her husband, Walter Mondale - former vice-president to President Jimmy Carter and Democratic Presidential candidate in 1984. On one visits, I remember Vice President Mondale saying, "As a child there were two topics which we had to talk about at the dinner table - politics and religion. My father and mother believed that politics and religion mattered in a world where faith and action had to be bound together." Now this runs opposite of the infamous adage - faith and politics don't mix. Well, I say, they mix around here!

I just happened to find an article from the Ohio State Journal, dated Monday morning, March 17, 1884. It begins, "The pastor of the First Congregational Church condensed some sterling truth into a short sentence yesterday morning. When making announcements for the week (see they even quoted Washington Gladden's announcements in the newspaper!), he included the primaries of both parties, which occur respectively on Wednesday and Saturday nights (they could get it done in one night back then!). Referring to those of the Republicans on Wednesday night he said, `Our prayer meeting comes on Wednesday night, and I hope the voters will get through the primaries in time for the meeting, but get through at the primaries at any rate, for I think that a man who neglect the primaries of his party to go to a prayer meeting is a mighty poor Christian." (You "Go" Dr. Gladden!)

In the actual sermon, Dr. Gladden, spared no shots when speaking of the local politics and municipal leadership of cities in the United States. He said:

The cities of the United States are, as a rule, the worst governed principalities of Christendom. There is no country in Europe, except, perhaps, Russia, whose cities are not governed, as a rule, more justly and cheaply than in this country. In most European cities, the best and most intelligent men have control of, municipal matters. In America the government is, as a rule, in the hands of the most ignorant and vicious. There are exceptions to the rules, and thank God for the exceptions . . . But, in this city, good laws are trampled under foot . . . (He goes on to talk about gambling houses, saloons open all night, and then asks:) Whose fault is it? These things are done with your consent and your neglect of duty . . . You often say the (political) choices are between two evils. This is a consequence of your neglect . . . Who chooses the less of two evils chooses an evil . . . (He concludes) We want the city government to be clean, just and efficient, and we will have such a government if the good men turn out at the primaries Wednesday and Saturday evenings." (The Ohio State Journal, page 1, 5/17/1884).

That, my friends, was spoken from the pulpit of First Congregational Church while located on Capital Square. From 1900-1902, Dr. Gladden served on Columbus City Council, elected without spending one penny on a campaign which he didn't need to run. He declined a second-term because he was unable to give the time he felt he needed to both the church and the government.

So, how pleased are you with Columbus city government today 116 years later? Do you feel good about the leadership and if not, what are you doing about it? Late last week, I was appalled to find out that there are (supposed) hearings coming up on low income housing in this city in which time has not been allotted for low income people or concerned citizens to speak. Instead, these supposed public hearings are for citizens to listen to city officials speak about their plan. I never knew that public hearings meant the "public gets to hear" what officials have to say. I thought public hearings meant that public officials get to hear from people. When the people of this city cannot speak to their elected officials in public forum, we do not have good government. I certainly hope this scenario unfolding doesn't end-up as the measure of acceptable leadership in the public square of our city!

Dr. Gladden in his book Recollections speaks of "The Municipal Problem." He concludes at the end of the chapter, written in 1909, "My experience on City Council left me with a deepened sense of the seriousness of the business of municipal government and a more vivid realization of the lack of knowledge and skill on the part of those who are handling it . . . (The issues facing city government) are being handled by incompetent people because those with the necessary equipment refuse to undertake it." (pp. 351-352). Can the same be said for our situation today?

In his book Faith Works, released earlier this year, Jim Wallis (who preached here in the 1990's) writes of 15 lessons he has learned throughout his years of pastoring and preaching. Lesson Five is: "Recognize the three faces of poverty." He speaks of poverty as: material poverty, spiritual poverty, and civic poverty. Now, I have heard spiritual poverty addressed often from the pulpit. I have also heard of material poverty (less often) addressed. But, civic poverty, while quite operational in the our life together, is rarely addressed in pulpit or newspaper or forums of public discourse in the church and society. Civic poverty, simply stated, is a decline in citizen participation in the political process, including voting, and an impoverishment of the political debate itself. When candidates are spending all their time and energy fund-raising, they cannot possibly be "issue-raising." They cannot possibly be consciousness-raising. The truth is we need to counter our civic poverty by searching for some real answers, not simply allowing the media, instead of just finding ways to argue over the questions.

Jesus had this problem in Luke's Gospel - the 4th chapter. Returning to his hometown of Nazareth, he went to synagogue services - as was his weekly practice. While there, he reads from Isaiah 61, in which the prophet calls for both personal and social healing and transformation. But, Jesus goes on to say that these words are not only for the Jews, but also for the gentiles. That's when the hometown hero turns into a hometown hunted. The lynch mob arises and drives him to the edge of the cliffs. You see, once you start advocating for those who are castaways, and dispossessed and forgotten, you lose the popularity contest. Jesus knew this. By pushing an agenda that was friendly to the friendless, he lost friends. But he gained his soul.

In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul seemingly advises the Christians in Rome (who are regularly persecuted for their faith) to obey the authorities of the empire. While this passage has often been interpreted by people as Christian obsequiousness, and been used by the likes of Hitler and others for Christian compliance to unjust laws, Paul had no such intention in mind! Rather, as Ernst Kasemann writes in New Testament Questions of Today: if that state, of which we are all a part, does not serve the common good, then it is our duty and responsibility to end obedience and respond in faithful community to the demands of democracy and action. (New Testament Questions for Today, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1969, p.216). To be inactive in the face of need is to be - no less than - unfaithful!

As Jesus learned (and taught) in Nazareth - all politics is local. We have to address the truth of need in the face of greed right before our very eyes. Although the call to action is often challenging and difficult, the face of spiritual, material, and civic poverty calls us to be bold and honest. Otherwise, we have no one to blame for the negligence of action except ourselves.

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