In the US, we just had “mid term elections,” where we don’t have an election for president but we do elect the entire lower house of our legislature (House of Representatives) and roughly one third of our upper house (Senate), as well as many state, county/parish, township, city, and other positions. So when I say “The pastor is political,” I think of things like the pastor being involved in secular governmental politics, or in the governance of the church. I think of a pastor who is making connections and trying to influence people indirectly through who she knows.
Often we try to “not be political” or “not take sides.” And whether we do or do not have a public declaration of our political leanings, we are still sometimes told “don’t be so political.”
Is it even possible to “not be so political”? I would say “no,” because just being one’s self is political.
I know we’re not supposed to be the focus of the church – Jesus is. And yet, being who we are as pastors can have a profound influence on how people see others like us.
When in 1785, Lemuel Haynes became the first African American ordained by a protestant church (the Congregational Church – later part of the United Church of Christ), his place in the church was a theological and political statement about the value of the lives of black people: in a newly-formed nation whose economy relied greatly on the labor of enslaved people, this man’s presence in the pulpit demonstrated that racial subjugation cannot be justified.
It was in the seventeenth century when the Society of Friends, or Quakers, chose Elizabeth Hooton as their first female minister, and Clarissa Danforth became pastor in 1815 in the Free Will Baptists – both making a strong theological and political statement for the equality of women. Antoinette Brown Blackwell‘s ordination in 1853 made a statement that was not at first honored by the same denomination that had ordained Lemuel Haynes – the Congregationalist Church – in refusing to recognize her ordination.
Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, in 1939, made Georgia Harkness the first woman to hold full professorship at a US theological seminary, making a theological and political statement for women’s spiritual and intellectual equality.
In 1968, when the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches was formed, the very existence of a Christian church made up primarily of lesbian and gay people was a theological statement on the salvation and worth of its members, but also political: in a country where laws against homosexuality were justified by Christian morals, the existence of gay Christians challenged the very basis for those laws. And the Reverend William R. Johnson became the first openly gay man ordained by a mainline denomination (United Church of Christ) in 1972, making a theological and political statement that the rights of gay and lesbian people matters to people outside the gay community as well.
We are all children of God. Yet limits on participation in the church send the message that some of us are lesser children of God. Conversely, churches with diversity in leadership send a message that we are all equal in God’s eyes. So being a pastor influences the polity of the church – the church recognizes God’s call on people like you – and me.
And in places where Christianity is a major religion, the diversity of Christian leadership shapes public opinion about what rights and responsibilities people ought to have. So in these places, being a pastor influences the secular politics of the region: fostering acceptance and respect.
And so my existence as a female, transgender, gay, person approved for ordination and seeking a call as minister of the word and sacrament in the United Church of Christ is also political: it means we are just as worthy, just as moral, just as gifted as teachers and preachers and leaders as are other people. It challenges the notion that we are somehow less-than.
Because we live in a political world, our very existence will be political. Are you a working mother? A survivor of cancer? Divorced? Remarried? An immigrant to your country? Do you require the use of a cane, walker, scooter, or wheelchair to get around? Are you younger than most pastors? Older than most? When you stand in the pulpit, or wear your vestments or clerical collar, or use the style “Reverend,” you are making a theological and political statement about people like you.
As a pastor, there is no avoiding the political. Even had I not been out as transgender, or had I not answered a call to ministry, that too would be political: just as choosing to not vote in an election aids the opponent of the candidate for whom I would have voted, so too does my declining to take my place in what is – whether we like it or not – a political space helps to perpetuate the ideas that people like myself are not quite worthy.
There is a political aspect to each of us. Whether we choose to exercise that political power is also political. May God’s wisdom guide us in how our political power is used.