Politics and Prophet Motives: An Interview with Thomas W. Ogletree

Ray Waddle

Thomas W. Ogletree, Frederick Marquand Professor of Ethics at Yale Divinity School, has spent his career and ministry examining the interplay between the biblical witness, Christian social ethics, and the wider world of politics and social action. Across five decades, his inquiries have led him deeply into philosophic debates, political theory and the social sciences, while always engaging biblical history, the prophets, Jesus, and the church’s mission. His next book, tentatively entitled Biblical Foundations of Christian Social Teachings, ventures a comprehensive examination of the ways in which Old and New Testament themes can address the public responsibilities of Christians today.

He was educated at Birmingham-Southern College, Garrett Theological Seminary and

Vanderbilt University. His calling has from the beginning included parish ministry as well as teaching and writing. In the 1950s and 60s, before pursuing his academic career, he was a pastor of churches in Alabama, Wisconsin, and Tennessee. He was director of graduate studies in religion at Vanderbilt University (1978-81) and dean of the Theological School at Drew University (1981-90). In 1990 he came to YDS, where he served as dean until 1996.

His books are The World Calling: The Church’s Witness in Politics and Society; Christian Faith and History: A Critical Comparison of Ernst Troeltsch and Karl Barth; The Death of God Controversy; The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics; and Hospitality to the Stranger: Dimensions of Moral Understanding. He is coauthor of From Hope to Liberation: Towards a New Marxist-Christian Dialogue and co-editor of Lifeboat Ethics: Moral Dilemmas of World Hunger.

He retires at the end of Fall Term 2008.

[Recently Prof. Ogletree was interviewed by Reflections editor Ray Waddle. The following is an edited version of their conversation.]

REFLECTIONS: Your new book project takes a sweeping look at the biblical foundations of Christian social teachings. How do the political dramas in the Bible relate to our times?

THOMAS OGLETREE: One argument I make is that the Old Testament is the narrative of the faith pilgrimage of the people of Israel, who knew the ambiguities of social existence and confronted the complexities of life—the real world. Now to me, that’s powerful because it reminds us we have to think about who we are as people of faith amid the complexities of the real world. You can’t assume that we’ve got some kind of immediate connection to the absolute.

This is such an important theme in the Old Testament—the reminder that no system worked perfectly. This is a narrative of people living in multiple social systems over a thousand-year period—as slaves in Egypt, as a covenant community in the land of Israel, as an exilic community in Babylon, and in post-exilic struggles to renew the city of Jerusalem with its holy Temple.

The New Testament focuses on foundational events—Jesus’ Galilean mission, the Gentile mission under Paul’s leadership, the initial consolidation of the Christian movement. But if we look carefully at the way they are portrayed, we discover that they do not offer final answers to every question we might have. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides a model for creative thinking about complex issues, urging us to pay attention to our feelings and to work constructively with our fellow human beings.

REFLECTIONS: But aren’t people tempted to look to Scripture for specific political solutions?

OGLETREE: One thing I emphasize is the way the early patristic writers, such as Origen and Justin Martyr, adopted Paul’s words in Romans 13 as a model for thinking about the social world: “Be subject to the governing authorities,” because they have been instituted by God. People were called to be obedient and responsible.

But the Old Testament has important models too. Augustine’s account of the “earthly city,” for example, is similar to the description of the “ways of a king” in 1 Samuel 8, though Augustine does not cite this text.

What’s intriguing to me is how, when you get to Calvin and reformed Protestantism in the free cities, they started reclaiming the Old Testament covenant tradition as a way of thinking about the social order. Calvin inspired his successors to look freshly at basic social structures—emphasizing the need for accountable government, and the need to separate the church’s mission from public affairs.

Also intriguing, of course, is that the Reformers played a very important role in influencing the formation of American democracy. Even so, the full emergence of the free exercise of religion was very slow and difficult. Most of our classic Christian traditions have presumed that the ideal state of affairs is a socially cohesive society with an established religion backed by political powers. Even the principle of tolerance won only gradual acceptance, and tolerance meant putting up with your false beliefs so long as you also supported the dominant religion. Roger Williams was one of the theologians to articulate the free exercise of religion as a foundational faith principle.

REFLECTIONS: Do you think the Constitution’s Bill of Rights was inspired by biblical ideas?

OGLETREE: I love the fact that James Madison described the formation of the federal Constitution as the quest for “a more perfect union.” The Confederation of States was not working; states could not rely upon one another even in the face of serious external threats. Well, Israel’s tribal confederation faced the same problem. They became convinced that the only solution was to have a king. Madison was seeking a way to integrate the states in a more cohesive way while also preserving their independence. Remember, he studied with a prominent Puritan divine, John Witherspoon, at the “College of New Jersey.” They’ve changed the name. They now call it Princeton. So he was educated by Puritan divines. To me that connection is not trivial.

But we know the U.S. Constitution is not the same as Israel’s covenant tradition, which encompassed all aspects of people’s lives. It assumed a cohesive society. But First Amendment protection of the free exercise of religion is not a purely secular position. It recognizes that authentic faith must express our personal commitments, not beliefs imposed by state power. And that means I’ve got to honor your views. The free exercise of religion means you must have no establishment of religions, lest the powers of the state be improperly used to violate liberty of conscience. So I contend that pluralism is actually at the heart of the Christian gospel if we read the New Testament carefully.

REFLECTIONS: That sounds counterintuitive.

OGLETREE:  Consider Paul’s words, “I’ve become all things to all people, that I might win some.” Or re- call the Pentecost narratives in Acts, where everyone heard the gospel preached in their own languages. Look at the churches Paul served: They were constantly conflict-ridden. How do they manage to work together, when the church cuts across class and status lines, and it’s culturally diverse? Well, it’s hard. But such pluralism is also central to Jesus’ mission, for he welcomed Gentiles and Samaritans even, who symbolized the lost sheep of the house of Israel. If you have an understanding of the gospel that excludes them, then you’re wrong. This violates our calling as God’s people.

That’s why in our contemporary world we’ve got to create a discourse ethic, an environment where we try to respect and honor one another. Here, I can cite Paul about being patient and forbearing. Paul stressed these attitudes not only for internal church relations, but also as a summons to reach out to enemies and even persecutors! Jesus offers a parallel message in the Sermon on the Mount. He initially focused on attempts to resolve conflicts between brothers, but he soon offers examples for coping with the demeaning and dominating practices of the powerful: turn the other cheek, give up your cloak, walk the second mile.

REFLECTIONS: So Paul and Jesus offer complementary visions of ethics, or do their “politics” compete?

OGLETREE: For Paul the church was a marginal and highly vulnerable community, so he mainly emphasized accommodating existing social structures be- cause that was the precondition for the survival of the church. Paul focused his energies on building new faith communities. Jesus’ mission took place in a social context shaped by Jewish values, and he emerged as a radical prophetic critic of injustices and abuses of power.

Jesus openly acknowledged his mission was causing conflict, setting sons against their fathers, daughters against their mothers. He warned those who would become his followers that they too would experience hardship and suffering, just like the prophets before them.

You find nothing like that in Paul. So you can’t make Paul alone the paradigm for Christian social teaching; otherwise you eliminate the prophetic role and you’d be presuming the churches have no meaningful access to public life. And that’s not true. We do have access to public life, but we still must not attempt to use coercive state power to impose our beliefs on others. What we must do is promote justice and human well-being in our modern global, pluralistic, market-driven economy. Jesus called for justice and righteousness; he insisted that we must not exclude people. Even those who are considered outcast are beloved by God. Likewise, Jesus welcomed those who had married foreigners during the imperial dispersion of the people of Israel. We should not exclude them. Remember, Jesus was not a president, or a king, or even a governor. He was a prophet, and, above all, our Savior. Yet he never claimed authority to impose his views on others.

REFLECTIONS: Does the Bible show us how to establish right government?

OGLETREE: Any group that claims a political right to impose biblical teachings on particular human societies is taking a position that cannot be sustained by Scripture. The Old Testament reminds us that no system works perfectly. In important respects the tribal confederation was the most just. There you had extended family networks and assemblies of male heads of households who could act and potentially challenge the judgments of tribal elders. Elders were essentially grandpas. It is true that women were not given a public voice. They were expected to focus on bearing and raising children, a practice that had legitimacy when the survival of a people depended on having as many babies as possible. Beyond particular family networks people did not have strong attachments to neighboring tribes. The tribes did work together occasionally, but particular tribes could not always be relied upon to put their own young men at risk in order to protect other tribes facing external threats.

The tribes did have versions of a democratic system undergirded by powerful faith traditions, but they recognized that they needed something like “a more perfect union” in order to survive. They adopted monarchy, an act of realism, so the Old Testament clearly displays the complexities of social and political life.

REFLECTIONS: Your answer suggests the image of Reinhold Niebuhr in the court of King David whispering theological realism into the ear of the monarch.

OGLETREE: In my book I ask, why is David called righteous? The answer: he was penitent. What happened when a prophet confronted him for some wrong that he had done? He did not kill the prophet. He repented—publicly. Was that not stupid for a king to allow some prophet to call him to account for wrongdoing? It certainly violated conventional wisdom.

REFLECTIONS: Perhaps political ethics, at that moment, took a leap forward in history?

OGLETREE: Exactly! As I point out, however, only two kings aside from David and Solomon get a passing grade in the books of Kings: Hezekiah and Josiah. The others get F’s. So, Reinhold Niebuhr did not invent Christian realism. It’s in the books of Samuel and Kings. The point is that we must be prepared for the ambiguity of political systems.

REFLECTIONS: Because of those complexities, some believers have always concluded that Christians should wash their hands of politics. Are they right?

OGLETREE: No. But we need to recognize from the beginning that Christian involvements in politics are potentially problematic. The Scriptures remind us that any time we get too involved in politics we will probably be exploited and used by people in power. There can’t be a simple transfer from values of the faith community to those values and standards that should be a part of public policy.

REFLECTIONS: How should we relate to politics?

OGLETREE: It’s simply not the case that everybody can reach agreement on issues as subtle and complicated as those we always face in the political realm. We’re going to be divided over those.

It’s problematic for any particular religious tradition to establish itself as the standard for the whole society and attempt to control the power system. The story of the corruption of the church when it gets too closely involved in politics is repeated over and over. It is understandable, therefore, that people with exclusively secular commitments have attempted to remove religion from the public square. But I’m saying that there’s another option.

What we must do is pay attention to how the various spheres of society work—the economic system, social system, political system, and cultural system. We must then discern appropriate ways to access those systems, and to see how wisdom or virtue might be integrated with values resident in existing systems. We seek to contribute to the good in ways that are compatible with existing social worlds.

Persons of faith need to know the limits of what they can appropriately do. They need to acknowledge this differentiation of spheres with special attention to civil society. Civil society is the place where Christians have the freest opportunity to be engaged in public discourse. Effective democracies depend on productive relationships between multiple communities. If particular racial or ethnic communities are isolated, then we have a conflict situation. Iraq, for example, is presently fragmented among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, rendering democracy virtually impossible. Democracy requires some form of civil society, where people can fully disclose who they are, share their views, and fruitfully engage in mutually respectful discourse.

As Paul would say, you’ve got to be patient and forbearing. Bear one another’s burdens. You’ve got to try to hear and understand. If you have a viable civil society then you’ve got a basis for a democratic system.

In my judgment it is naive to think that we can impose democracy anywhere in the world. Even in the U.S. context democracy took form gradually, incrementally, step-by-step. The beginnings are shocking to us — that only males who owned property could vote. Slavery was accepted.

REFLECTIONS: How does prophetic tradition relate to this? Should believers disrupt politics?

OGLETREE: Sometimes you’ve got to have something like a civil rights movement or an antiwar movement or a feminist movement. Democracy does provide space for conflict, rendering feasible something like the prophetic calling. Prophecy often requires disruption, though ideally with constraint. When Jesus drove merchants and money changers out of the Temple, he disrupted Temple activities for the better part of a day. At the end of the day he left the Temple. He returned the next day and made himself available to Temple priests and scribes. His actions were apparently designed to get the attention of Temple officials, a form of militant nonviolent direct action.

The sit-in movement in the sixties pursued a similar strategy, breaking segregation laws by occupying lunch counters, yet accepting arrest and imprisonment. The aim was to make clear that segregation laws were not legitimate. Remember that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted Thomas Aquinas that an unjust law is no law. Jesus doesn’t say submit to the powers—no, challenge them, but don’t do it violently. He rejected the violent strategy. So, the issue is how you do the conflict.

REFLECTIONS: Finally, how can a church go about teaching the Bible in a climate of political division? Are there unifying themes in Scripture that we’ve overlooked in our culture war fevers?

OGLETREE: I find helpful Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 12-13 and Romans 12 and 13. He is addressing situations where there are troubles, and the task is to help people work together. These texts ask us to face our conflicts, and learn how to deal with our differences directly and openly. I have also cited texts where Jesus acknowledges that his mission will cause conflict—yet he is committed to inclusion.

I remember an experience I had as a student pastor in Wisconsin, one that totally surprised me. At the beginning of my ministry I met with each family in the congregation. I wanted to learn what they cared about deeply, and how they might want to become more involved with the church’s ministries. My goal was to help them discern their own gifts and discover their passions.

What caught me by surprise is that five or six families spoke about a women’s prison that was located not far from the church. They were troubled by images of women behind bars because of crimes they had committed. I decided to help them start a prison visitation program, so they could hear the stories of these women. They soon discovered that these women did not fit common stereotypes of criminals. Instead they began to see that some people simply were not getting the chances they needed to live a decent and fulfilling life. There’s no way that I could have persuaded families in the church to look critically at the full scope of social issues that ought to concern them. They began to discover many of these concerns on their own by responding to social realities in their own social worlds.

REFLECTIONS: By going face to face with strangers, taking a chance …

OGLETREE: … and welcoming them –

REFLECTIONS: … they broke through to new community possibilities.

OGLETREE: But now we’re facing a most challenging period. Building a strong social witness within Christian churches has become a harder undertaking given high levels of population mobility. In some settings, a congregation can lose as much as a third of its membership in a five-year period. People are also choosing their churches on the basis of their personal needs rather than shared visions of the greater good. I am intrigued by strong indications that people are asking probing spiritual questions, and struggling to discern the ultimate meaning of life. A rigorously secular view of life is simply not proving to be satisfying. My hope is people will seek a more comprehensive understanding of the Gospel message, one that empowers us to foster the common good among all the peoples of the earth, and a more careful stewardship of the earth as well.