Wednesday, June 22, 2011

At the Intersection of Church Street and Congress Avenue

Two recent conversations with faithful persons affiliated with my congregation have me pondering the dividing line between Church and State. Neither conversation touched on hot-button topics like abortion, gays in the military, prayer in school, or the death penalty. Neither conversation involved discussions on the faith of various elected or public officials and celebrities. Rather the conversation was about the appropriateness of having any political discussion within the Church. One dialog partner was intensely wary of any discussion involving the politics occurring within the Church while the other was adamantly opposed to it going so far as to say, "Politics do not belong in the Church of Jesus Christ."

I hate to disappoint these good people, but as long as people are gathered together in community politics will exist. One of the definitions Merriam-Webster gives for the word politics is "the total complex of relations between people living in society." Simple put we cannot avoid discussions of politics within the Church because by its very nature the Church is a political entity. The Church is a complex of human relationships which interact within a given society. There are going to be discussions, disagreements, negotiations, and resolutions pertaining to various issues in Church and State, whether we like it or not, simply because we are human and that is how we operate.

This is not to say that a particular church or pastor should be endorsing or demonizing individuals or political parties from the pulpits entrusted to them by God, at least in the American context. Aside from the tax laws which make such actions illegal, I don't believe it to be biblical. Very rarely do we see Jesus endorsing or attacking individual public figures. What we can find in scripture is a description of how systems and structures are corrupted by people seeking power. If Jesus were a one man 527 political action committee, his advertisements would not be skirting the line between political endorsement and issues ad. As I read the Bible Jesus is much more concerned with systemic issues including poverty, healthcare, welfare, the judicial system, and the ruling class, and his sermons reflect it. The Sermon on the Mount was not just some nice homily on the virtues of faith but was a critique of the politics of the time. Many of the Gospel's beloved parables are thinly veiled political commentary criticizing the aristocracy dominant status quo. When Jesus called on his disciples to pick up their crosses and follow him it meant that they would have to engage in political protest just as he did. Jesus was not crucified because he preached a message of love and grace; crucifixion was a common way to get rid of political dissidents. Jesus was crucified because the message he preached threatened the power structures and politics of his day. For the Church to not engage in political rhetoric would therefore be irresponsible, cowardly, and faithless.

However, I do believe we have to be careful in how we approach the intersection of Church and State. Many good people of faith have differing political views, and in today's climate of partisan "expert" talking heads conducting staged shouting matches to score political points, we need to model a more excellent way. We need to approach those with whom we disagree with grace and dignity focusing on issues not personality. We need to let our understanding of scripture guide our political stances. Most importantly we need to remain open to the movement of God's Holy Spirit which may be calling us to do a new thing whether we like it or not.

I believe the concerns of the people with whom I had the conversations which served as the inspiration for this article are valid. I believe they are afraid that by talking politics in the Church we open ourselves to the dangers of conflict and schism. There is enough of that in everyday life that it should not exist within the Church. But we who are redeemed by the grace of God alone should be courageous enough to face those fears knowing that in doing so we model the kingdom of which we have had a small foretaste. If we cannot have serious legitimate discussions about politics in the Church, where can we? If we cannot be an example for the world of how such discussions can occur then why do we bother to gather? If we cannot disagree and wrestle with one another with love, grace, and mercy then what are we really saying to the world about who we are?

Soli Deo gloria