Politics and the Pulpit

Politics — from Greek “politics”, literally “The things of the cities” — is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations among individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.

“The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairers of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” (Isaiah 58:11-12)

Ok, here I go. Yikes!

In these years of a robustly developed Christian Nationalism and increased American political polarization I hear it more than ever I have before: “There’s no place for politics in the pulpit!” And while I vehemently disagree as a pastor and as a preacher, I receive and absorb it out of pastoral care, trying to understand the anger or frustration coming my way. It depends, of course, on what you mean by “politics”. I recall a lot of these comments and conversations this week as I read and reflect on these words from my colleague Rev. William Barber:

“Preachers don’t get to stay out of politics. We are either chaplains of empire or prophets of God.”

I’ve been enjoying evening backyard conversations with my daughter Hannah, and the other night we were talking about this, and Hannah helped me remember that the word “POLITIC” literally means “The things of the city.” And in this sense, of course, of course politics belong in the pulpit. We as people of faith, as ones formed by covenant relationship with God — we who are as Christians called to be “ambassadors of reconciliation” — we who from our faith more than anything else find our morals and ethics — we must be deeply concerned about “The things of the city”, the goings on in our world, in our time and place, because our God is all about what is just and right (and what isn’t!). When Jesus sums up the law, he talks about love of God and love of neighbor. This love of neighbor has everything to do with the “things of the city.”

What I think is that this is not the “politics” that we have in mind when we say politics have no place in the pulpit or in the church. What we are thinking about is political parties and senators and representatives and bitter mockeries and endless commentary spiked with hatred leading to violence. We are commenting on what our culture is doing with “The things of the city”, how politics become a means to an end of personal gain and power and status. Hopefully as people who are trying to follow Jesus, we are calling this out rather than preaching it’s goodness!

My critique would be that we need, as Jesus bids us, to “seek first the Kingdom of God and it’s righteousness…” and herein has been our deep failing leading to our current demise — that we have not rooted and formed our “Politic” from the Kingdom of God, which calls us to opposite concerns and ethics — not seeking personal gain as much as what’s best for my neighbor or the whole group — giving up power so that others may be empowered and lifted up instead — and advocating for those who have little or no status, who have suffered unjustly, rather than building up our own power. These are the politics of the Kingdom of God, and the politics (hopefully) in the pulpit that form our ethics, our understanding of what is right, and our actions in the realm of the world we live in.

I’m taken to that seminal moment when Jesus was ack home and ready to begin his ministry. He was handed the scroll and “found” a certain part of Isaiah’s prophetic and political words:

“The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4) When he was done reading, he sat down (that’s what preachers did back then) and preached a nine word sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It is with these basic realities of the Kingdom of God that we should come to our citizen duties, and not the other way around. We must understand how we, especially in the last decade of soundbites and twenty-four hour news, have failed to root ourselves first and most in the Kingdom of God. So often it seems that our Jesus must fit into our worldly politics, and when that doesn’t happen, we cry foul. I INCLUDE MYSELF IN THIS, 100%!

We have bible studies and book groups that are very sparsely attended, where we talk about these tensions. If we are lucky, six of us are there. What would it look like to turn off your favorite news channel and tune in to the Bible study instead? Or how about we give our primary time and energy not to commentary on politics that suits our point of view, but instead take up and read the scripture, especially the gospels of Jesus together, and seek first the Kingdom of God as the basis for how we view “The things of the city” and how these things might improve, become more right and just as we think, speak, and act from a Kingdom of God perspective?

The issues remain — immigration, guns, abortion, capital punishment, the economy, racism, foreign policy, on and on, you name it — and we must care deeply about all these things of the city. How can we come to them first and mostly from our discipleship in the Kingdom of God? The Australian theologian Michael Bird says this:

Jesus cannot be mapped onto, let alone owned, by the American political divide. For people who are serious about following Jesus and how to live out their faith in him, it is not a question as to whether Jesus believes in our politics; rather, the real question has to be whether we believe in Jesus and in his kingdom as a challenge to our politics. In other words, for Christians, the point of contention should not be whether Jesus is more conducive to Republican or Democratic parties, but whether we are prepared to break from the polarization of our politics to engage in a more authentic mode of discipleship. To follow Jesus will inevitably require us to walk away from long-held political loyalties to reorder our lives around a new constellation of values shaped by Jesus’ teaching, his example, his death and resurrection and his lordship over all things. Politics informed by religion is a means to a common good, but politics with Jesus haphazardly tacked on at the end does not make for a good religion. Instead, we heed Jesus’ call for his church to be “the light of the world” and “a city on a hill” (Matthew 5:14) by setting forth a vision of human vocation and value that honors the God who made us and redeemed us in Christ.” (The New Testament in Its World).

Let’s stop trying to make our nation more Christian, and focus instead on ourselves as the church. Let’s get rooted and focused and energized by and empowered by the Kingdom of God.

Just my thoughts today. It’s ok if you disagree! But let’s talk about it with love and respect.

Peter Hawkinson

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