The details are a little foggy, but I think I was listening to NPR. They were having a discussion with the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention around what seemed like a softening, or at least a shift, in its approach to politics. President Greear acknowledged that the convention’s religious values had in the past too closely identified with a very certain political agenda. In short, he spoke about the importance of maintaining values essential to the faith and identifying social and political problems while acknowledging valid differences in opinions about the solutions to those problems.
Despite my disagreements with the SBC I was impressed by Greear’s remarks. It is too easy to vilify the other side and to fall into the trap of conflating religious principles with political solutions. A recent Christian Century article offers eleven responses to the question, “Do politics belong in church?” Pastor Lee Hull Moses continues Greear’s point. “In reality, hardly anyone who opposes gun control laws wants children to be murdered at school, they just think there’s a different way to keep kids safe. Most people who advocate for universal health care don’t want the government to take over our lives, they just want everybody to get the medicine they need.” It seems to me that the political climate has become so contentious and divided that we are quick to assume the worst in one another, which both damages community and deafens us to potential solutions. Moses’ reminder is a helpful one.
I’ll share some additional quotes for your consideration.
“Policy is how we love our neighbors, and purity doesn’t release us from the Great Commandment. The illusion of being non-political is a luxury of privilege that only leaves the vulnerable exposed.” – Prof. James K. A. Smith
“If we don’t talk about politics in the church setting, we are giving folks permission to compartmentalize their lives.” – Rev. Scott Anderson
“A nonpolitical church’s politics supports the way things are.” – Sandhya Rani Jha
“What is essential is how to avoid letting what passes as politics determine the political agenda of the church. The church is its own politic. For example, for Christians the issues of abortion is not addressed by naming whether we are pro-choice or pro-life but rather by asking: What practices are necessary to be a people who trust we have gifts worthy of passing on to future generations? It may come as a surprise to many that having children entails a politics.” – Prof. Stanley Hauerwas
“Except for one or two who occasionally ask for more political material in worship, most people are looking for relief from the barrage of ugly and disturbing news. I don’t believe they are looking for an escape, exactly. They simply want something different, an opportunity that might offer a balm for their weary souls.” – Rev. Susan M. Reisert
Here’s what I think in response:
Policy is not the way we love our neighbors. It is a way we love our neighbors. Policy needs to be rooted in real relationships as much as possible. Policy devoid of authentic relationships is vulnerable to limiting influences that cloud our vision.
Compartmentalizing our lives is sometimes a survival mechanism. But, it is sometimes an avoidance technique. Faith cannot be relegated to Sunday morning, and to follow Christ is to exercise our faith in all that we say or do. At least, it is to try. This means that our faith should color our views.
Hauerwas’ point is the most interesting to me, and Reisert’s should not be confused with the impulse to bury our heads in the sand. I resent the pressure (perhaps self-imposed) to turn my sermons into commentary on the week’s news. That feels like a coopting of the gospel’s agenda, and I wonder if part of that pressure is rooted in an ill-placed faith in politicians over the capacity of Christ to work for Christ’s kingdom. This may be an overstatement, but sometimes I wonder if the UCC would claim victory if it turned us all into registered Democrats. (I’m a registered Democrat, by the way.) This would be to commit the very sin for which the SBC seems to be repenting. Christians too often forget the call to be an alternative way in a world whose terms for morality are more and more dictated by the left and the right. Folks who come to church seeking “something different” are onto something important. That doesn’t mean we should ignore politics; it means that we should claim, as Hauerwas suggests, that the church is “a politics.” To continue his example, our job isn’t done if we have simply united in our opinion on abortion. The more important agenda for the church has to do with a deeper formation that helps us see the ministry of bearing children. So, the Christian politic here is less about a principled “right” or “wrong,” and more about an identity that is tied to the purposes of God. When our work as a church focuses on “who we truly are in Christ,” our actions are shaped by that identity and our collective witness speaks.
That said, if I were to push Hauerwas a bit I might respond, “Yes, but ultimately we are faced with a vote. We are asked to make a choice at the polls. The church is its own politics, but how does that inform our engagement with the politics that govern our society?” Maybe he would say that we shouldn’t always feel obligated to vote. Maybe he would say that we would have a greater impact on the world if we organized independently of political parties. Maybe he would argue that a vote’s impact is more or less significant only to the extent that it builds up the body of Christ. I’m not sure.
Honestly, I would have a hard time accepting a suggestion that our votes in November are unimportant this time around. It feels like our country is at a crossroads and we are sinking deeper and deeper into two divided cultures with heels equally dug into the ground. At a time when it appears that party victory is more important than political solutions to complex issues, it occurs to me that one question to guide us in our voting may be: will this vote somehow contribute to a change in spirit? Will this vote impact our government’s ability to engage in reasonable discussion about the problems that affect our country and beyond? Will this vote empower government to work in such a way that our best common interests might play more of a role in shaping policy? If this were everyone’s guiding question perhaps our politicians would be free to act beyond the partisanship that so guides them now.
I would also suggest that we find ways to apply a version of this question to ourselves beyond our vote. How might we contribute to a more productive cultural climate? How might we change the spirit of our times so that the world can move forward for the better? One answer is to make every effort to put human faces to the issues before us. It is to refuse to dehumanize anyone. Another answer is to pray as if our lives depended upon it. There will be times and places where we cannot compromise (perhaps because of our faith), and in a sense those who disagree will be our “enemies.” Pray! Pray to love your enemies. Pray at least for their transformation as you pray also for those whom your politics seek to serve.
That is enough for this rather long Crier article. As always, I invite your thoughts. I appreciate hearing from you and I look forward to continuing the conversation.