One of the most prominent topics of conversation in The Pastoral is Political has been an ongoing discussion of just what is political and what is appropriate to speak to from the pulpit (or, more broadly, what action is appropriate for ordained clergy to take and what is not).
There are members of our congregations who would prefer that no mention ever be made of political issues, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, same-gender marriage, climate change, immigration, #MeToo, or any of the other controversies that have riled the body politic recently. They seem to expect that sermons will only ever be comforting, book studies examine questions already resolved, and Sunday school classes retell the “safe” Bible stories (as if kids don’t ever ask difficult questions).
But that’s simply not possible or desirable. If our spiritual life is to mean anything at all, it must address the questions and difficulties of our lives—which means exactly those issues (and more) listed above. Politics is, at bottom, how we as a society, make decisions about various issues of concern. Clergy, spiritual leaders, are called to help the members of their churches/temples/synagogues/mosques to find answers to those questions that are consonant with their individual faith traditions. The response of a white male Presbyterian pastor may be different from that of a black Baptist female pastor, but the tasks are the same. “What am I, the spiritual guide or leader of this faith community, called to say to them about this controversial issue? What does my faith say? What does my theology bring to bear on this?”
Sometimes the answer is a witness of some sort—encouraging the faith community to participate in a march or protest, writing letters, speaking our own stories as they bear on the question. Sometimes another action is the answer—opening a food pantry, starting a tutoring program. Sometimes the answer comes from the community, who feel a call and share that with the leadership. Whatever the response, it involves change.
Therein lies the problem for those who protest against “politics in the pulpit.” If the pastor talks about the need for racial reconciliation, or for accountability around sexism, or for work around climate change, something will be altered. The congregation will be asked to reach out, to make connections that may be uncomfortable or even triggering for them; the denominational structure may have to be involved; processes, procedures, and even customs in the local church that have been in place for years may be changed. It’s a truism that the church (both as an institution and at the local, individual congregational level) do not like change and resist it.
But life is change. If something, whether a milkweed plant, a calf, a person, or an institution, is not growing, it is dying. “Growing” is not synonymous with “getting bigger,” either. “Growing” means adaptation, expanding knowledge and experience, becoming something different. It may be just a bit different or it may be radically new—but growth, life, means change. A church—or a pastor—that is not willing to face challenges and changes is a church that will be closing, a pastor taking early retirement.
Yes, sometimes a congregation is so volatile that the slightest mention of anything controversial, in the church or outside, is unwise. But this is rare. For more common is the reluctance to speak for fear of what the congregation might say, or in doubt of the pastor’s response. That reluctance is what will choke the congregation’s call to social justice, to peace work, to reconciliation.
Look at it this way. The church as an institution has always been involved in politics. Jesus spoke out against Rome; Paul and John were political prisoners. Martin Luther was caught up in the politics of his day, and Calvin actually made Geneva a religious state of sorts. The English rulers were entangled with the church, first the Roman Catholic, and then the Anglican church. Traditions such as Black Baptists and African Methodist Episcopals were in the forefront of the Black civil rights movement. My own tradition, Metropolitan Community Churches, founded in and primarily for the LGBTQ+ community, was a moving force in the gay civil rights movement—our founder, Rev. Troy Perry, fasted in protest of California’s anti-homosexuality laws, and we were prominent in the same gender marriage struggle. Even small local churches, of all denominations, are often caught up in the political conflicts of life—how to get zoning for a new women’s shelter approved, or to get the permits for a food pantry.
The simple fact is that we cannot avoid politics as individuals nor as churches. Pastors, clergy, are involved in those politics as well. The rules of the US Internal Revenue Service may prohibit US churches from endorsing candidates for political office if they want to retain non-profit status, but that does not prevent us from speaking on issues.
One of my favorite pieces of preaching advice is the famous “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The other is, “Never step over the Sunday paper on your way to the church.” Spiritual leaders are called to companion their faith communities as the members seek to respond to the political dilemmas of their society. We are called to speak truth to the members of our faith communities and to leaders of our society. Sometimes the truth will be comforting—God is with us in our trials and struggles—and sometimes it will be confronting—“You are the one!” as the prophet Nathan tells David. In either case, we cannot step over the paper and remain stagnant and comfortable—we speak truth to comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable. We must, to encourage them to grow and flourish as all God made them to be.
Martha Daniels pastors Holy Covenant MCC in Brookfield, IL, USA, a suburb of Chicago. Her work in the church is centered on worship, leadership development, and spiritual advocacy for people who are on the inside (incarcerated). Outside the church, she loves reading and singing, sometimes both at the same time. She sometimes blogs at rainbowpastor.com.
RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not
grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back to the specific post. For
permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.