I’m a tea drinker, in the morning, alone. I don’t, that is, attend tea parties, whether they be of the social or, more recently, the political types.
In fact, I couldn’t care less about the light and polite tea parties that occur in late afternoons. I’ve got more interesting ways of satisfying my social instincts – a raucous theological discussion at any time of the day or night, for example.
But who could not be intrigued, especially if one cares about democracy, by those boisterous and angry tea partiers who take their name and cause from the early American patriots who dumped British tea in the Boston harbor to protest unreasonable and unrepresented taxation?
Oh sure, some – maybe many – take curious note of them but then quickly dismiss these tea-identified protesters as simply malcontents and right-wing nuts who are inordinately concerned that the government is an uninvited invasive species into their billfolds and purses and, even more importantly, their unrestrained freedom to do whatever they please.
But I’m not convinced that this small but persistent fringe of political (and religious) extremists in American life represents the heart and bulk of the tea party movement, despite the attempt of the right-wingers to coop the tea partiers into the ranks of fanaticism.
If I’m reading them correctly, many seem instead to be legitimately anxious about the immediate and long-term stability of the “American way of life” for themselves and their families as well as the nation itself. Something important, they believe, is at risk, however much they recognize that drastic governmental action was needed to avoid a national and worldwide economic collapse over the past year.
So it is understandable that the Christians among the tea partiers might find solace and support in the story from Luke 13:31-35, in which the Pharisees (of all people) come to Jesus to warn him that Herod Antipas is out to kill him, as had been the fate of John the Baptist, and to plead with Jesus that he go into hiding. But rather than heeding the counsel of the friendly Pharisees, Jesus directs them to: “Go and tell that fox, on my behalf, what I’m up to.”
Doesn’t that business of the telling the “fox” (read: the sly and self-serving government) that I’m not going into hiding and not keeping quiet and not stopping what I’m doing, doesn’t that have the ring of the tea partiers today?
I’m persuaded it does.
But might this narrative from Luke also invite the Christian tea partiers, along with the rest of us in the Christian family, into a discussion about what the proper role of government is and the place of taxation within that proper role?
Jesus directs the worried Pharisees not just to tell the fox-of-a-government that he won’t be silenced or inactivated, but also to tell Herod that he will continue doing what must be done for there to be the kind of human community that God wills for the whole world.
“Tell Herod this,” Jesus says. “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and until this work of mine is done.”
We Christians today can interpret these words of Jesus as our own mandate: that for all the inattention and lack of concern of government for the real needs of human beings and human communities – the casting out of personal and social demons and the healing of individual and communal bodies – the Christian community will not be silenced or deterred in these commissions.
But can we be satisfied, in our Christian calling today, only by doing on our own the things that government ought to be doing for all of its citizens and all of its communities?
Or, as Christians living in a democracy, do we also have the calling – the religious vocation – to be involved in the political process to advocate for governments accepting what are their appropriate responsibilities?
I don’t doubt that this political vocation of Christians in a democracy now includes concerns about what the tea partiers are calling our attention to – about fiscal responsibility, about the dangers of excessive national debt, about the intrusion of government into private lives, about restrictions of guaranteed rights and freedoms. Those are issues that deserve, for the common good, our Christian perspectives in public discourse and debate.
But that is only to suggest that we Christians ought to be in serious discussions with one another and with our fellow citizens in the wider community about a whole range of issues that must include the roles of government, the issues of taxation, and how we help continue to create the conditions for human flourishing.
Possibly those discussions could take place while tea is being served. In that case, even I would join the tea parties.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.