Wednesday, February 13, 2008

church and politics

Many years ago I came to a realization concerning politics. As you know, evangelical Christianity has become synonymous with the Republican party in America. But I have come to the conclusion that a Christian leader needs to carefully consider the ramifications of publicly endorsing any particular candidate or political party.

Here's why: because the message of Jesus Christ needs to take precedence. Should a church find its primary identity wrapped up in "abortion protests" and "preventing gay marriage"? If we portray ourselves as the church of the Republican Party...does that essentially declare to Democrats, or Libertarians, or Green Party people, "You are not welcome here. I guess you'll have to hear about Jesus somewhere else."

And more importantly...trying to change people's outside behavior will never transfrom our culture anyway! What good does it do for people to adopt a conservative agenda, if they don't have a relationship with God? The answer is for people to get Jesus in their heart. That is what will result in a transformation of our culture. The church has spent generations trying to change people from the outside-in through political power. News flash! Jesus said it will never work. God's plan is to change people from the inside-out.

Today I read this article, and it was clear that Gordon MacDonald is a guy who "gets" the point. It's pretty long. But believe me, it is worth a read.

When Leaders Rock the Vote
In this political season, how much should I say?
by Gordon MacDonald

In the faith community of my boyhood, our defining hymn could have been "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through." We were relatively disinterested in any public issues except those that had something to do with family or matters of private morality. Everything else was "of the world." Result? I was quite naïve about how to sort out the kind of public issues with which a pastor should identify.

Figuring all of that out began during my seminary days. On weekends I pastored a tiny, rural church in northwestern Kansas. As I was preaching my first sermons Lyndon Johnson was running against Barry Goldwater for the Presidency. I determined to break from my Republican roots and associate with the Democrats. I pasted a Johnson sticker on the back of my Volkswagen. I did this in a Kansas county that would eventually vote overwhelmingly for Goldwater! Was I brave or stupid?

My father (full disclosure: he was a Goldwater man), always candid, saw my Johnson sticker and said, "Are you prepared to take a political position that will cause some people to stop listening to you when you preach the gospel?"

Now there was a showstopper of a question, and not a bad one. It challenged me to rise to a new level of consciousness in determining when I should go to the wall for an issue and when it might be prudent to avoid the wall. In truth, I had not moved to Cheyenne County in Kansas to stump for Lyndon Johnson; I was there, presumably, to represent the interests of Jesus.

In that case I removed the sticker. My political preferences would not be a deal-breaker when it came to engaging people in my congregation. And the moment birthed a new insight: In matters political, I needed to discern the difference between a preference and a conviction.

On another occasion two years later, it was a conviction that caused me, as a young pastor, to take a stand for civil rights. After a racial disturbance in our southern Illinois town, I encouraged the leaders of churches, both African-American and white, to meet and discuss the matter. I held one of the meetings in our home. That was daring in 1966. It resulted in a confrontation at the next deacons meeting and the forced resignation of one of our leaders.

In both of these cases, I was free to assert my rights. But while I asserted that right in the second event because of conviction, I chose not to in the earlier account because it involved preference.

As the years passed, I came to see that the practicalities of a Christ-following faith almost always have political, social, and economic implications. But when and how to use my pulpit privileges or the influence of my pastoral position to bring attention to these issues was a serious challenge. I did not enjoy the job security of a tenured professor, and, to be frank, I did not possess the bravado of a zealot. By nature I wanted to get along, to be a priestly presence for people, to build a strong church.

So when should I take the plunge and declare myself or act upon controversial issues and when should I stay away? The answers that came to me over time are what I call soft answers … or judgment calls.

Principles I (now) live by
Most importantly, I learned to seek a convergence of impressions from biblical reflection, historical precedent (as I gained insight from my hand-picked heroes of faith), vigorous prayer, and the wisdom of a few close confidants. If one of these was out of alignment with the others, it was a wake-up call that I might be on my way to making a fool of myself.

It became important to ask, Who am I, and what have I been called to do? By nature I am not an adversarial person; I am not politically minded, and I do not function well in the world of debate. I was (still am) called to be a pastor—a spiritual father—who functions best when he asks tough questions and challenges people to listen for God's voice and its potential to direct them into action. There are some in my world—even good friends of mine—who are naturals at entering the fray of the public political arena. But that seems to be both their strength and their prophetic call. It's not mine.

A second thought that developed was to make sure I was aware of the priority themes of the Bible and their practical or political implications. One might be tempted to say, "Well, duh!" except for the fact that many of us come from traditions that have manufactured great conviction out of just two or three lines of Scripture while ignoring other possible convictions based on scores and scores of scriptural lines.

This meant that issues like compassion for the weak and the poor and justice for the powerless became more than matters of conscience to me. It meant that I could not take the doctrine of creation seriously without recognizing the concomitant issue of the proper care of the earth. Can one seriously claim to follow a crucified and stripped Savior and not have conviction about the irresponsible uses of wealth? I saw such things oozing from all sections of the Bible.

A third principle that became important to me was to become a listener. It's a discipline: to patiently hear what someone else has to say and reserve judgment until they have fully spoken their piece. I'm amazed at what I have learned and how often I have been humbled when I follow this principle. This is the beginning of genuine Christian discourse, something not well developed in my background.

Fourth: I determined to stay as free as I possibly could from ideological entrapment. There are worthy ideas and solutions that come from the minds of good people who populate both the conservative and liberal constituencies. The God of the Bible is neither Republican nor Democrat; the biblical framework cannot be reduced to the agenda of either the right or the left.

Fifth: I determined to renounce the temptation to bash those with whom I do not agree. It is one thing to poke and prod at an idea, another to attack the person who bears the idea. Too often I have failed here.

The arrogance and smugness of too many Christian spokespersons has cost us greatly. We will pay a price for years to come for their mean-spirited and intemperate remarks. Bible-believing Christians are not usually characterized by the larger world as compassionate, gracious, and thoughtful. Rather, we are typed as angry, win-at-all-costs, insensitive people. How can our higher message—that Jesus is mighty to save—be taken seriously if we are perceived in this way? This is worth weeping for.

It was helpful for me to carefully select three (just three!) issues with which I would identify over a long period of time. The three for me were famine-related issues in Africa, racial reconciliation, and environmental matters.

As a leader, it is all too easy to get involved in myriad issues, to become a "lobbyist" for every decent cause. But I could not afford to be pulled away from my core sense of call: to shepherd a flock of souls and to help them follow Jesus. Obviously, I would—from time to time—illustrate issues of discipleship in terms of their political implications, but extensive, time-consuming, passion-draining involvement in non-pastoral matters was probably for other people, not for a pastor.

That didn't mean I would not occasionally point out political and social applications of the gospel. I had to steel myself against the possibility of losing an occasional friend or church member. In my world I found that I was something of a hero if I spoke against abortion and for the sanctity of life. But I lost my heroic status if I dared to extend the principle of life-sanctity to the matter of capital punishment, or the fact that 27,000 children die every day in our world due to diseases that are treatable.

A sermon that protests gay marriage would be welcomed, I learned. But a sermon that reminds us that, statistically speaking, divorce and spousal abuse is just as flagrant in our congregations as it is in the secular community, is shrugged off.

Perhaps my greatest disappointment with the tradition I consider my "home" is that it wasn't and still isn't a safe place to ask questions, explore alternatives, launch creative ideas of a political or social orientation. It is often overrun by a mindset that puts people in a box after just a few words are said that don't sound safe and familiar.

It has been said that the role of a prophet is never to compliment government but rather to critique it in the name of the living God. The traditional Quaker phrase—"truth speaking to power"—applies here. But how shall we know what to say to political and economic power, if we cannot convey thoughts to each other in respectful dialogue instead of battering each other with labels, disassociation, and slander?

As this national election process determines who will occupy the White House for the next four years, I know that many pastors will struggle to know when to speak and when to remain silent about all of the issues that a national election raises. More than once I have been in conversations where a political or ideological position was far more divisive than a discussion over a piece of orthodox Christian doctrine.

Regularly pastors thread their way through the labyrinth of opinions and debate knowing that a misplaced word can sometimes set a pastoral relationship back many months if not permanently.

But every once in a while, a word well-spoken because it is immersed in prayer, clothed in humility, backed with solid thought and the fullness of God's Spirit breaks through and people see something differently.

Result? They go on to make a God-intended difference in their communities. That is one great moment.