In the twenty-four hours following the recent presidential election, I received three messages—none of them from church people. I’m not talking about people who don’t go the church I serve, but people unassociated with any church.
One message came from a very recent Syrian refugee, whose family our congregation co-sponsored as they made America their new home. He wanted to know if the election meant he and his family would have to return to a refugee camp in another, more dangerous part of the world.
Another message came from a lesbian with whom I’d gone to grad school, wanting to know if I would perform her wedding before the inauguration. She and her partner had been planning a June wedding in England, but now they didn’t feel like they had the luxury of waiting.
The third message came from a Pakistani Muslim friend who’s a doctor here in town. He said, “What do I do Derek? Today at work the other doctors were high-fiving because of the election … right in front of me. These guys are my friends. I was devastated to think that they never stopped to consider how I might feel after last night. They know my two nine year-old sons, who today I’m very frightened for. I don’t know what to do. I’m not sure what’s going to happen to us.”
I’m a Christian pastor, for God’s sake. Why call me?
I’m nobody special, so I suspect that the reason they called has something to do with the assumption that the church (writ large) will not stand for the kinds of terrorizing acts my friends were certain was to follow from this administration. That’s a pretty powerful assumption about what the church at its best represents to people afraid that the powers and principalities are now arrayed agains them.
I spoke last week as a faith leader at a Pride rally. I began my remarks by noting that in a state like Kentucky a lot of violence has been done to LGBTQ people by Christians. But, I went on, LGBTQ people have historically been the very kinds of social outcasts Jesus had a habit of hanging out with. Consequently, those people who claim to follow Jesus ought to be the first to repent and be accountable for the harm that’s been done in our name. Furthermore, I argued that moving forward, people of faith ought to be among the loudest to advocate for justice on behalf of those who’ve too long seen injustice against them baptized in the service of some misguided doctrinal purity.
If we’re doing it right, the church, it occurs to me now—even more than it did at this time last year—should be the seat of resistance. We should be the folks people think of first when it comes to standing up for those most threatened by a politics that multiplies inequity and reifies greed.
Having said that, I imagine someone will be quick to object, “That sounds awfully political. The church needs to stay out of politics.”
I want to be careful to say what I’m about to say as pastorally as I can: “Where did you ever get a stupid idea like that?”
There is no truthful way to read the Bible—especially the Hebrew prophets and the Gospels—and come away from that reading and still say that following Jesus is somehow an apolitical endeavor. Laying out an argument about how the poor or the sick should be treated, or about how those in power should use that power to benefit the most vulnerable (instead of in some systematic attempt at self-aggrandizement) is absolutely a political argument.
What I think people generally mean they they reject the commingling of religion and politics is the belief that religion should refrain from partisan politics. It is probably more correct to say, however, that Christianity should never become the religious auxiliary for any political party, using its influence to justify partisan positions that have been arrived at prior to engaging with Jesus.
Fine, I have no quarrel with that. But I think it should be pointed out that both sides tend to argue that it is the other side that is guilty of such theological rationalization. What I think the question ought to be is whether this political position or that more nearly captures the heart of the good news announced in the unfolding reign of God. The story we tell ourselves about who God is as expressed in Jesus should always animate our politics.
Here’s the thing: Partisan political parties are imperfect tools to help us realize that story; they are by no means, I hope it goes without saying, the best tools or the only tools. We shouldn’t be married to them any more than we are to our favorite hammer. But if the job is pounding nails, only someone who knows nothing about carpentry would say that a screwdriver is just as good as a hammer. And only a fool would say that all tools have flaws, and therefore we shouldn’t use any of them—regardless of the job in front of us—because God doesn’t like tools, and doesn’t approve of us using them, or because we don’t see Jesus using those tools in his life and ministry. (Jesus didn’t use antibiotics either, but that doesn’t mean he’s opposed to them.)
Another objection will almost certainly be summed up something like this: “Okay, but half of my church voted for Donald Trump. I’m the pastor to everybody, and if I start taking political positions—even though I have some fundamental problems with the president—I’m going to alienate half of the congregation. It’s better for everyone if I stay out of politics and focus on things like teaching, preaching, and pastoral care.”
Such a reaction prompts a couple of thoughts. First, if you don’t say something about some of the racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, plutocratic, transphobic policies being championed, your preaching is lousy and you’re liable to alienate the other half of your congregation anyway. They’re looking to you to preach the truth. Your unwillingness to be “political” or “controversial” is seen by many of them as an abdication of your primary responsibility to interpret the world truthfully … in love, yes. But the truthfully, nevertheless.
Second, teaching and preaching the truth of the Gospel is pastoral care. In Matthew 9:35–36 we have a 30,000 foot view of Jesus’ ministry: “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
This passage gives a rather traditional Matthean formula for the work of Jesus’ ministry: teaching, preaching, and healing. But then Matthew tells us that as Jesus was perambulating over the countryside doing his pastoral duty, he ran into crowds, for whom he had compassion. Now, compassion is literally the act of feeling another’s feelings, usually suffering of some sort—in this case the feeling of being “harassed and helpless”—and then being compelled to act to confront that suffering, and work to change it.
So, if Jesus is feeling compassion on the crowd because they are “harassed and helpless,” we have to ask ourselves what exactly this harassed helplessness refers to. Most likely, according to Warren Carter, this phrase “harassed and helpless” refers to the beleaguered masses who find themselves under the thumb of Roman state oppression, as well as their fellow Jews who are collaborating with the Romans at their expense. Jewish peasants were especially vulnerable to the economic and political pressures Rome imposed on the countries it conquered and occupied. Jesus, therefore, feels compassion toward them because they’ve been on the receiving end of the violent caprice of their Roman overlords.
In response to this injustice Jesus describes the “harassed and helpless” as “like sheep without a shepherd,” which is a historical reference to the relationship between the sheep that make up the flock of God’s children, and the shepherds to whom God has entrusted the care of God’s sheep. These crappy shepherds, in short, are the priests and the religious bigwigs who’ve betrayed God’s flock, at least in part, by not protecting them—in an attempt to try not to appear threatening to the politics of Rome. Ezekiel, in another context, spells out nicely the failure of the shepherds:
Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fattens; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them (2–6).
What’s interesting is that Jesus lays responsibility for the continued abuse suffered by the flock at the feet of the shepherds, whose pastoral duties seem to extend to protecting the sheep from the abuse of political predators who endanger them. When the shepherds neglect this duty in an attempt to stay politically neutral, they betray their sacred vocation. Apparently, then, their responsibilities consist of more than just petting the sheep. Identifying dangers to the flock, it would seem, is more important than placating the sheep and convincing the wild animals that you pose them no threat.
Someone might interject here that even if the job of a pastor is to speak truthfully about the powers and principalities that imperil the harassed and helpless, to say that the church should be the “seat of the resistance” sounds merely like an oppositional strategy—one that’s focused on the negative.
I understand how it might sound that way to the average white parishioner in a mainline congregation, who doesn’t feel particularly threatened by those running the current political show. To those people resistance sounds like a radical call to arms, one that risks turning the world, as they know it, on its head. But when people react negatively to the use of the word resistance, they rarely say it’s because the stable world they take for granted is in jeopardy. They tend to say things like, “Such an extreme posture will cause division.” Or they say, “We want everyone to be treated fairly, but what you’re describing would drive people away. And aren’t we in the job of bringing people into the church?”
There are so many things I’d love to say in response to that sort of moral reticence, but that would be another article. What I most want to say, however, is that that kind of reluctance to speak against the things Jesus spoke against doesn’t take seriously the “harassed and the helpless” as subjects for whose cries of injustice we bear any responsibility. If you were to ask my refugee friend, or my lesbian friend, or my Muslim friend about whether they’d like the world that threatens them turned upside down so that they might live without fear, I know how they’d answer. If you asked them to choose between justice for them and their children or peace in a congregation afraid of division, I can tell you what choice they’d make.
Issues of congregational conflict and division aren’t small matters, it’s true. They require thoughtful time and attention. But the question for the church and for its pastors is, “Why are we more afraid of upsetting some parishioners than in offering a truthful word about the injustices that produce people who are harassed and helpless?”
How can we who call ourselves by Jesus’ name look at the imperiled sheep and say that our job as shepherds only permits us to speak in soothing tones that mollify those who are too easily put off by talk of politics?
The church should be the one place where those who face a potentially hostile world feel safe, where the harassed and helpless have confidence that our moral commitments prompt us to resist any politics that terrorizes the powerless.
The world should have confidence that—whenever families are put at risk, whenever young black men find themselves disproportionately and systematically penalized because they’re black, whenever dead refugee children on distant shores evoke grief, but refugee children in our own country evoke fear, whenever LGBTQ people are bullied and discriminated against, whenever poor people are belittled for needing help to eat or to take their children to the doctor, whenever women have to remain vigilant against the humiliations launched by insecure men, whenever creation is threatened by our rapacious plunder of it—the church will stand together with the embattled.
The church should always, without qualification, without mumbling about “congregational division,” without convenient theological fudging be a voice for the voiceless in the face of the threat of oppressive laws and executive orders.
“But it could cost us everything.”
True. But we follow Jesus, and look what having compassion on the harassed and the helpless cost him. Why do we think we’ll get by with anything less?