And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left, in glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared. And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Excerpt from the Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison
The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have in truth been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations. The valuable improvements made by the American Constitutions on the popular models, both ancient and modern, cannot certainly be too much admired . . . [Nevertheless,] Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, . . . that our governments are too unstable; that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties; and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice, and the rights of the minor party; but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. . . . These [distresses to our rights] must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administration.
By faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community.
To me, this is one of the most fascinating conversations in the federalist papers. James Madison, who was the author of the first amendment protecting religious freedom through disestablishmentarianism, and a one time seminary student at Princeton University, provides, what I call, a public theologians’ analysis of the problem. He does not use explicitly Christian language – he cannot, writing under the pen name publius – but he does provide, in this tenth essay, a philosophical argument for enshrining in the rule of law, something we might call the rule of Christ. His thinking is based on the clear evidence that divisions, what he calls factions, are “sown into the very nature of man.”
What he means by this is much what St. Paul means by sin – it is the human condition to somehow fall for that which is destructive and to fail to rise up, consistently to that which is constructive. If we understand this, we only understand it because our neighbors also have a claim upon us. When we regard this claim, we see it as a claim to the right to be included in the conversation. It is the claim that truth is not limited to human constructs, but is identifiable through human reasoning.
Madison argues that when factions destroy the voice of the minority, the strength of the republic is threatened.
Most dangerous, writes Madison, is when the citizen’s voice speaks through money. A majority’s voice thus driven, will do what it can to protect this most powerful motivating factor to quiet the other voices in the conversation.
Madison argues, in our reading today, that any faction which is adverse to the rights of other citizens or the common good, should be balanced. Madison never argued that the distribution of property should be entirely equal, only that the inequalities should not eliminate the conversation about the common good.
Madison thinks that the system of government as it is laid forth the Constitution, best minimizes the problems which tossed the democracies of Greece and Italy.
We are familiar with his analysis. A representative system where a large number of people voting for a small group would dilute some of the passions of factionalism. A large pool of voting citizens would issue smart, competent officials and the great variety of self-interests in the public would lead to turn-over and would prevent a particular party from permanent rule.
We see all of this operating more or less successfully, in our modern democratic elections.
I am currently reading a book about the depressed situation of our economy. It is, as you know only inching toward health. Stiglitz, the author of this book maintains that one of the reasons it is failing to recover is the presence of an enormous inequality in the distribution of wealth. This inequality, he argues was created through the self-interest of elected officials who are then able to pass legislation to regulate the banking and markets in ways favorable to their position.
Madison seemed aware of this looming problem. And he labels it the most serious problem of factionalism. Madison’s solution, curiously, questions the self-interested assumption behind “the one-person, one-vote” pillar of our democracy. Madison invites us in the tenth essay, to formulate our vote based on the interest of a common good.
What I want to suggest in the remainder of this sermon is to invite you to consider a different kind of self-interest, and a different kind of faction.
In our brief snippet from the Federalist Papers this morning, Madison argues that a faction is, by definition a group united by a passion, say the passion of making money by having money, which is adverse to the rights of other citizens. But he invites us to consider an alternative – the very alternative that Jesus calls his followers to adopt.
When James and John ask to be placed at Jesus’ left and right hand, the operate out of the kind of self-interest that we think of when we think of one-person, one-vote. They compete with other disciples for the privilege.
Jesus tells the brothers that if they are able to stick with him in the trails he is to face and all that goes with his baptism, yes, they can be his companions. But, Jesus says, it isn’t his call to determine whether their self interest will win out over the self interest of the other disciples who might like such a position. That, he says, is not his call to make.
And then Jesus explains to all of his disciples what he means: Indeed, earthly rulers, ie., elected officials can and will govern in ways that serve their own self-interest as rulers or, as in our case, money-makers.
Jesus then says: “But it is not so among you, for whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all.”
That would seem to apply, in our political context, to Christians running for public office: that if they are truly followers of Jesus, they must not exercise their political leadership either on the basis of their own self interest or on the self interest of particular individuals and factions of individuals. No, as Christians, they must exercise their political leadership so all are served. They are to be the “slave of all,” as St. Paul once put it.
Clear enough. That might be the primary question Christian voters ask of political candidates who claim to be Christians.
Is, however, this different rule applicable only to Christian candidates for political office and Christian political leaders? Or does it also apply as well to Christian voters?
Put another way: if, in a democratic republic, “we the people” are to be the “rulers,” then doesn’t it follow that the Christian voter must not vote on the basis of her or his self interest, or in a way that benefits the “faction” of Christians?
Doesn’t it follow that the Christian voter is under obligation to vote for the self interest of others, not herself or himself, but on the basis of providing for those without the power of the majority, or the power of wealth, or the power of influence? Doesn’t it follow that, if we are to be the slaves of all, we must resurrect the principle of the “common good” which Madison strove also to resurrect?
Isn’t the Christian voter to be, in a democratic republic, the exception to the rule of pure self interest in politics?
The Apostle Paul seems to have understood this when he wrote the following to the Christians in Philippi: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (2: 1–4)
Story of Exceptional Teachers of the year. . .
The head of the teachers union felt it somehow her right to call the gathered to vote with the union. Certainly it would have been within her Constitutional right, even if not all of the teachers were union teachers.
Not, however, for Constitutional reasons, do clergy not tell their congregations how to vote. The prohibition on non-profit religious organizations from direct, partisan political activity became part of the US Tax code in 1954 when it was introduced and passed into legislation without any testimony from non-prfits.
Nevertheless, it does make good sense. As Thomas Jefferson was fond of pointing out – the clergy held considerable influence, and some of it not so good. He wrote: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”
Less, cynically, Jefferson argued that the highest function of a religious institution would be fulfilled by by its insistence that the truth which it teaches has nothing to fear from free and open debate. He wrote in a letter to John Adams, “The law for religious freedom… [has] put down the aristocracy of the clergy and restored to the citizen the freedom of the mind.”
When Paul wrote that we should have the interest of others at heart, or that we should “take on the mind of Christ,” he was not arguing against freedom of the mind – he was arguing for an expansion of the mind – suggesting that indeed, our highest calling, was free and fair debate around the issues that concern, not only our own short-term self interest, but the long-term question of the good for all.
The question from me, as a member of Jefferson’s somewhat reviled priestly class is not how you will vote, but how will we explore the meaning of Madison’s hoped for resurrection of the common good? To drink the cup Jesus drinks and to be baptized with his baptism is no easy path and affords no easy solutions.
Let us be an exception to the rule of pure self interest in politics – let us reason with one another and explore how our self-interests may be served or changed by the call to engage in a dialogue about the common good. Amen.