By Bishop Mike Rinehart
My kingdom is not of this world. – Jesus
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. – Jesus
When is one being too political? Is it a violation of the separation of church and state for church officials to support or oppose certain legislation? How about church members?
Trained pastors and deacons, of course, know that the Bible is very political, and that Jesus is very political. If our people don’t know that, we have only ourselves to blame. It is up to us to help them understand how very political it was to call Jesus the Son of God, when everyone knew, because it said so on the coins, that Caesar, and only Caesar was the son of God. It is up to us to explain that to say that Jesus is Lord was sedition, a crime punishable by death. If our people don’t understand this, we need to up our preaching game.
The First Amendment
People often cite the first amendment to say that the church should not meddle in government affairs, and the government should not meddle in church affairs. Here’s what the first amendment says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It’s just the first part of this amendment that addresses church and state. There are basically two points: Congress shall not establish state religion, and Congress shall not impede the free exercise of religion. The amendment goes on to talk about freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition.
There is nothing in the first amendment that prohibits the church from speaking to the state about laws. In fact, that would be limiting freedom of speech. Likewise, there is nothing that prevents the state from holding houses of worship and religious leaders accountable to the law. Religious institutions are not above the law. Congress is not to establish an official state religion, nor to prevent the free exercise of religion. This does not mean the two ignore each other. Government leaders belong to churches, and church members serve in public office.
There is a long-standing tradition of religious leaders speaking prophetically to government leaders. In the central story of the Old Testament, God told Moses to go to Pharaoh, and instruct him to release all the slaves. When he did so, was he being too political? Was Moses a religious leader or a political leader?
Prophet Nathan condemned King David for his sexual misconduct with Bathsheba. Isaiah went to King Hezekiah. King Zedekiah consulted with Jeremiah. Amos, Isaiah and the other prophets called kings and people to justice for the orphan, the widow and the immigrant.
There was a day and age in which the church in the state walked hand-in-hand. Political leaders and business leaders were expected to be church members in good standing. Church leaders were expected to support government decisions. To do otherwise was unseemly. To oppose the Vietnam war, or segregation was considered unpatriotic by some.
Both mainline church and the state upheld a vision for America. These visions were pretty closely aligned, especially after World War II. It was during this era that the flag started appearing in the chancels of churches. The problem was, it was a white vision. People of color were not worthy to drink from the same drinking fountains or eat at the same restaurants as white people. Churches were just as segregated as the rest of society. Pastors who spoke out against this system were often pushed out of their congregations for being too “political.” Watch A Time for Burning, about a Lutheran pastor’s attempt to integrate a parish in Nebraska.
White churches and black churches developed different paradigms for preaching. In the white church, pastors were expected to support society’s dominant structures. Everyone knew they weren’t perfect, but it was felt the flaws were minor. It was often believed that everyone had the same opportunities to succeed or fail.
In the Historic Black Churches, it was recognized that those structures had failed African Americans. Pastors had to give people comfort and strength to meet the next day in a society where they were constantly being told to move to the back of the bus, the back of the line, or the balcony of the church, because of the color of their skin. Blacks were more likely to be pulled over, more likely to be arrested, and more likely to be convicted. Housing, education and opportunity was substandard, resulting in generational consequences. Preachers in the Historic Black Churches spent more time on transforming societal structures, and strengthening people to meet the challenges they faced. Church become the very place to deal with societal inequities, not the place to avoid them.
Not talking about uncomfortable social topics is a white church phenomenon. Challenging societal structures and corporate sins is considered being “too political.” One can decry the moral failings of the individual, but never the moral failings of the government.
Sometimes, when people say a religious leader is being political, what they really mean is partisan. They mean, that religious leader is supporting a particular party, as God’s party, or a particular candidate as God’s candidate. We know all parties to be under the power of sin. None can be equated with the kingdom of God.
When Jesus says, “my kingdom is not of this world,“ he makes it clear that there is no political party that can claim to be aligning itself with the kingdom of God. This passage does not, however, mean that God’s kingdom is irrelevant to the world. The kingdom is breaking into our world in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel has some very concrete ideas about how Christians are to engage the world. We are to be in the world, not of the world. Jesus did not shy away from denouncing the evil of his day, even defying Herod and call him a fox.
The moral voice, not the political voice
Cardinal DiNardo, when meeting with the bishops of various denomination in Houston, has been known to remind us that we are the moral voice, not the political voice. For those of us that are pastors and deacons, we proclaim the gospel, not any particular political ideology. If we are to be the moral voice however, we must not hide that voice under a bushel basket.
Morality is not just about individual behavior; it is about corporate behavior. Corporate evil. If one person can act badly, then many people as a group can certainly behave badly as well. If a law is immoral, it is immoral for religious leaders to be silent.
Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke prophetically against Naziism, and against Hitler himself. In fact, he participated in an assassination attempt on Hitler. It cost him his life. He spoke prophetically about following Christ in his book, The Cost of Discipleship.
What are Bonhoeffer had not spoken up? What if he had said, “This is a political matter, not a church matter?” Sadly, this is what most of his colleagues did.
Does the gospel have anything to say to the pressing matters of our day? Is it just about the afterlife? Does it have implications for how we live? I have discovered that when people disagree with you, they say you’re being too political. When they agree with what you were saying, they believe you’re being prophetic.
So when people say the pastor is being too political, they may mean that they feel the pastor is supporting one political party over another. This is a fair critique. No party is the kingdom of God. Other people, however, may mean that they simply disagree with the pastor’s position. They may not like that the pastor is making a moral stand in the midst of a controversy issue.
At the end of the day, religious leaders must speak from a moral center, no matter what the cost. To be silent in the face of evil is evil itself.
Just teach the Bible
“Just teach the Bible,” some will say, but one wonders what Bible they are talking about. Could they be talking about the Bible that is dominated by the words of the prophets? Could they be talking about the Jesus who took a whip of cords and overturned tables in the temple? Just preach the gospel, others will say, but one wonders which gospel they are talking about. Are they talking about a feel-good gospel that keeps everyone in line with things as they are? Is it a gospel about pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, salvation by in church singing Jesus songs and believing church doctrines? Or we talking about a gospel that calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus into a world in need of healing, feeding hungry, clothing the naked, welcome the stranger and visiting the sick and imprisoned?
The prophet Amos decried a phony religiosity that could sing happy God songs and ignore the poor and needy. God spoke in Amos 5:21-24:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
All of this leaves pastors and deacons in a bind. These are the people that pay our salaries after all. You don’t want to say anything that is controversial or that will make them mad. And one must be constantly vigilant about being self-righteous. We must speak the truth in love, but never, ever, assume we are the only ones to him the truth has been revealed. Even if we are trying to invite people into Jesus more generous, inclusive way of being the world, we cannot move them from A-to-Z. You can only move them from A to B, one step at a time. And they will only listen if they know you love them. You are in the right to be heard, by living love and generosity to them in your own life.
This is not easy. The Bible never said it would be. Paul was jailed, stoned, beaten and once had to be smuggled out of town in a basket. If you are silent about social evils, and there are plenty, you are complicit. If you speak up, you may risk being self-righteous, and possibly lose your job.
If only we had a good role model, one who paid a tremendously high price for speaking the truth in love.