Last June I wrote Part One of this blog post intending to follow-up quickly with parts two and three. I did come up with a snappy title, "An Elephant and a Donkey Walk Into Church..., funny right? But, I wrote part two over and over and simply couldn’t find the right tone.
What I had begun wrestling with in Part One was the tension that I felt between my life as an individual human being with political views and passions while occupying a professional role where my personal views are scrutinized and used to assess whether Intown is a church to belong to.
As our political climate has grown even more divisive in the last 7 months and the role of Christian witness in the public square even more hotly contested, another tension, or maybe I would say an “occupational hazard” has presented itself - how do I utilize the prophetic voice of a pastor, calling our little church to care about issues of social justice and compassion toward the 'least of these' when these very issues are being disputed in a partisan manner and both sides are using these disputes to mobilize their base??
First a confession: as a student of history (at least in my own mind!) one of the most disturbing historical themes to me is the conspicuous absence of the white Protestant church from some of the most important human rights issues in the American experiment. (Think: slavery, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights movement to name a few.) So, I confess that I have a certain anxiety as a white pastor of a largely white church of continuing to “do church” as we’ve always done in the midst of one of the most profound sociological upheavals in a generation.
Motivated by this perhaps-disputable historical analysis, I have been unusually-active as well as less-guarded on social media in the last year and have shared things and aligned myself with co-belligerents online in a way that may have compromised, or at least distracted me from the very local nature of my job.
I’m chastened by the famous statement of former Speaker of the House Tip O-Neill who used to say, “all politics is local”, and with few exceptions, a church’s ministry is quintessentially and irreducibly-local.
So, while I have at times spoken far too loudly into the national conversation with an overly-generous assessment of the importance and influence of my own voice, I haven’t led our church as effectively as I should have at addressing the injustice and human suffering in our local community while at the same time potentially isolating people in the congregation who aren’t overly-invested in the outcomes of national politics but who could be energized to care for the “lost and the least” in their neighborhood.
So, I want to apologize to those in our congregation who have felt concerned about how extroverted my political views have become, as well as to those who have been energized by this. Intown’s vision includes being an intentionally-heterogeneous community where people of all cultural backgrounds and political convictions are not only welcomed but are taught how to love one another and pursue Jesus and his mission - together. This is a very unusual and challenging vision, but I do think it’s worth it, perhaps more than ever.
This is going to take a lot of self-conscious patience from ALL of us! And, now that I’ve shared with you some of what I’m wrestling with and some of the ways that I need to change, here’s what I need from you:
- For those of you who have ever thought “my political or social views don’t feel affirmed here”, please don’t leave. Whenever people address something lacking in a church and then leave because of it, it makes it more true! We do ministry in one of the "bluest" cities in the nation, so it seems likely to me that if we are reaching city people they are generally going to lean more "progressive" or Democratic. If that's not your political bent, I encourage you to have the courage to stick around and enter into conversation about what it means to be a faithful Christian in the public square as this will create the space for mutual learning and the ministry of the church will be more effective because of your presence. Another of Intown’s commitments is that Jesus and his gospel is far more foundational and substantial and important than any of our political differences, so as you enter into relationship with others who may not only sit in the other pew but on “the other side of the aisle” remember that your starting point is your mutual commitment to the gospel rather than who you or they voted for. And, please give me space to talk about justice, poverty, income inequality, homelessness, care for the refugee, and the like as manifestly-Christian issues and ones that if we cease to talk about and agitate for we cease to be a church that deserves to exist.
- If, alternatively, you’re someone thinks, "finally, a pastor who shares my political views” please don’t allow this to be a centerpiece of your engagement at Intown. I’ve heard this sentiment, and believe me, I like to be that pastor! My formative years in ministry were spent at a culturally-conservative, affluent, mostly white, and very very Republican church in the South. I loved this church a lot but it was so homogenous that discovering there were pastors and Christian voices who loved Jesus and didn’t necessarily vote Republican was quite empowering for me even though at the time I had recently worked for a Republican US Congressman and was deeply embedded in the conservative cause. Katie and I are still friends with many people from this season of life, some of them can’t fathom our wanting to live in a "blue state”, while others find my social media presence gives them “permission” to question the status quo in their context - often the uncritical conflation of Christianity and Republicanism. But, I’m not their pastor, I’m yours and we need to remember that neither party, and no individual politician has the corner on the market of biblical faithfulness.
My dream is for Intown to be a counter-cultural community. In the political realm this would mean us being a community that resists the instinct to become an echo-chamber where one political perspective is expected and enabled. And for individuals it will mean that we don't leave our political views at the door but that we don't let them define us or our relationship with others. This presupposes having actual face-to-face conversations rather than debating one another on our Facebook pages.
This is hard! But, we can do it, together!