In Pursuit of the Spirit: Spirituality and Politics


Our church community has been struggling with questions of spirituality and politics over the past few months. At our most recent General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church (USA) made some controversial decisions about same-sex marriage and our financial investment in companies connected with the State of Israel. While I’m sure that some congregations are struggling with the decision over same-sex marriage, the struggles in our community have surrounded the decision to divest from three companies involved in Israel’s occupation of Palestine. I know there are people on both sides of this issue, and there are a range of reasons why people are for or against this particular decision, but what I find most surprising about the conversation is the number of congregants who believe the church should not be involved in politics.

The legal separation of church and state is crucial to preserve religious freedom, but such a separation does not exist within Christianity itself. Whatever your political views, it is hard to argue that Jesus was not political, not to mention the clear connection between religion and government in Old Testament narratives (it is God, after all, who chooses and anoints the kings of Israel). To be sure, Jesus did not engage in politics as a politician, but rather challenged the political and religious orders of his day. He critiqued and condemned the corrupt practices of government and religion and preached and modeled a new way of life and faith.

Few would argue that social justice lies outside of the realm of religion and the church, so I wonder if the disconnect comes with how we accomplish social justice. Yet to pursue social justice without advocating and lobbying for political change is like trying to dig a hole with one arm tied behind your back: you might make progress, but it will be slow and halting. Whether we like it or not, political structures are an inherent part of our world. They support both the just and unjust economic, social, and cultural situations we live and work within.

More importantly, to distance ourselves from politics implies that there are arenas in our life in which God is not present. This, I believe, is where spirituality (and religion) is often misunderstood. Too often we hear spirituality used as an excuse to withdraw from the world, to retreat into private prayer and solitude, rejecting all worldly engagement. While retreat and withdrawal are both useful spiritual practices, neither is meant to be done at the cost of our faithful engagement with the world. Rather, they are designed to help us pause so that we might see the world more clearly.

In a 1966 document entitled “The Theological Basis for Christian Social Action,” the Presbyterian Church wrote that “if we bear witness and serve the Lord, then, as a church and as individuals, we have a clear responsibility to concern ourselves with the social and political sphere also. To say nothing and do nothing in this sphere is to deny our own Gospel. It is to say that there are at least some areas in the world and in our own lives where God is not Lord.” Spirituality is not an otherworldly pursuit—it is a faithful engagement with the whole of life. If spirituality is listening for and responding to the movement of the Spirit in our midst, politics is one of the faithful ways in which we respond to the call of the Spirit, working to shape the world in God’s vision. Whatever our political persuasion or convictions, our faith and spirituality impels us to work to bring about God’s vision for our world. To ignore politics in this pursuit is misguided; rather, we are called to faithfully engage in politics in our effort to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

Blog-HeadShot-300x300Sarah Walker Cleaveland is a spiritual director, preacher, teacher, retreat leader, and writer. After graduating from Hobart & William Smith Colleges with a degree in religious studies, she spent two years working in Christian Education at a Presbyterian Church and a Presbyterian Retreat Center. She earned her M.Div. at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, married her husband Adam, then earned a Masters of Theology from Princeton Seminary. Adam serves as Associate Pastor at Winnetka Presbyterian Church in a suburb north of Chicago. Sarah is currently chasing their two and a half year old son Caleb and developing her spiritual direction practice.

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