Do Politics Belong in Church?
I asked a friend of mine about the preacher in her church. She responded by saying, “Sometimes she is too political.” The cover of the most recent issue of The Christian Century asks the question, “Do politics belong in church?” Here is one suburban preacher’s answer to that question: Yes! But let me explain what I mean.
The bottom line is this: In our baptism, we made a commitment to follow Jesus, and Jesus was the most political religious leader I know. After his own baptism, Jesus returned to Galilee and began to preach the most political sermon you can imagine: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:12-13). In the midst of the Roman Empire, Jesus is announcing regime change. He is proclaiming that God, not the Emperor, is the ruler of our body politic. That sermon undoubtedly got the authorities attention.
If politics has to do with the social policies and laws that govern a community, we then see that Jesus begins a campaign to show us what life looks like when it is governed by God’s politics. We find out that God’s society isn’t segregated; everyone is included. It is radically egalitarian: lepers, “tax collectors and sinners”, and other sketchy people are fully included. Women are included. The poor and sick have a special place in this movement. Jesus also addresses the economy: when he multiplies loaves and fishes, he announces that in God’s economy there is more than enough for all to be fed. And what about our enemies and those who do us wrong? In the Sermon on the Mount, he commands his followers to love not just their neighbors, but also their enemies. Disciples are also commanded to forgive the trespasses of others. And if all of this doesn’t bear witness to the political nature of Jesus’ ministry, the clearest indication that Jesus’ life was political is that the political authorities were so threatened by him that they eliminated him.
Therefore, if we are to follow Jesus’ way, our lives will be profoundly political, and it begins with our Sunday worship. Every Sunday when we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, we announce regime change. The preacher’s job is to proclaim that God rather than any earthly authority governs our lives. Therefore, the preacher’s job is to invite the congregation to support the laws and social policies of our country in so far as they are consistent with God’s ways, and work to change those that are inconsistent with the way of Jesus. Having said that, I don’t believe that the preacher should advocate for particular candidates or preach issue-oriented sermons. Focusing on particular issues often distracts the listener from seeing the deeper issues that are at play. I think the preacher’s job is to announce what a world governed by God looks like and invite the congregation to see the implications for our own world.
Let me give you an example. Take the issue of gun control. Most debates about gun control begin with both sides assuming that the right to bear arms in the second amendment is a given. Therefore, the debate is usually about what sort of regulations should govern owning guns. If the preacher’s sermon is focused on the pros and cons of various positions, then the sermon usually begins with assumption that Christians also have the right to bear arms. However, if the preacher begins by announcing the nature of God’s peaceable kingdom, the listener may discover that Jesus invites us to live a disarmed life. In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5.38-48), Jesus invites us to love our enemies and resist evil non-violently. How would that awareness then inform a disciple’s advocacy for various issues?
Jesus was deeply committed to helping God shape the politics of this world to be consistent with God’s ways. Followers of Jesus should do the same.