When one of you says, “I’m on Paul’s side,” and another says,
“I’m for Apollos,” aren’t you being totally infantile?
Who do you think Paul is, anyway? Or Apollos, for that matter?
Servants, both of us—servants who waited on you as you gradually learned
to entrust your lives to our mutual Master.
We each carried out our servant assignment.
1 Corinthians 3:4-5 (The Message)
The pastoral is political because power is a fact of life and Christians, including pastors, are called to address that power. When people-in-the-pew think of being political, they frequently think about being partisan. The pastor-in-the-pulpit must be guided by the understanding that what we preach is the Gospel, not the GOP or the Democratic Party—not to mention that a church that is partisan ways endangers its tax-exempt status!
The U.S. today faces the question of who/what is our telos, our end, our goal. This is a time to honestly examine who we are and where we are going. While sometimes we are urged that “we are better than this,” somehow the “this” is still here. While we wish to deny it, “this” is nonetheless the current version of who the U.S. is and what the U.S. is doing (and not doing). At this time, this is who we are. And if this does not accord with our founding documents and our aspirational goals, one or the other needs to change.
Do we believe that “all [people] are created equal”? Do we believe that everyone should be both protected by, and subject to, the law? Do we believe that certain basic rights belong to all people, even if they are not like us and/or not US citizens?
In 2018, the Presbyterian Church (USA) endorsed a Statement of Honest Patriotism. It begins with a statement of support for those who work in public service (career employees, elected officials, members of the judiciary) as part of God’s design for creation. It then lifts up truth as a core value for both citizens and Christians. This truth is often complex. This truth rejects sensationalizing conflicts and demonizing other human beings and peoples (including those doing such demonizing). It supports the fundamental right to vote, and condemns voter suppression through gerrymandering and restrictive voter registration, vote-by- mail, and poll site availability. The freedom to disagree about what is true and false, is protected by our freedom of speech. This does not mitigate the responsibility to hold those who speak accountable for truthfulness.
Freedom of speech means having access to information in a variety of ways from a variety of sources. Hate speech is excluded, as it seeks to silence others’ voices. Censorship and data suppression are prohibited. The First Amendment likewise supports peaceful protests, which must not be subject to the overreach of federal forces or the police.
The question of who/what is our telos is not just a question for the electorate. It is the crux of Christian preaching. If we believe that Jesus taught us to love our neighbor, and did not discriminate against certain kinds of neighbors (see the “Good Samaritan”), then we must do the same. As one seminary’s media campaign put it, love your _____________ neighbor: your gay neighbor, your liberal neighbor, your fascist neighbor, your black neighbor, your Asian neighbor, your poor neighbor, your rich neighbor—any kind of neighbor you have, love them!
If we begin our journey by believing that all people are created in God’s image, then we need to treat them as such. When tempted to treat someone badly (even if that impulse is the result of them in turn having treated someone else badly), we should think about if we would treat God that way.
Knowing that each person is created in God’s image, then justice becomes a mandate. As Cornel West stated, “Justice is love in public.” While in many cases justice would be an improvement over what we’ve got, justice could in fact be the low bar. There are instances in which justice is not enough, in which some kind of making-up-for-what-has-been-lost or taken is in order. It’s like the graphic of equity versus equality—children of varying heights need different sized boxes to see through the fence to the baseball game. Giving them all the same height box won’t do it.
So while partisan politics remain out-of-bounds for preaching, the principles that undergird decision-making, the values that we hold that make us vote the ways that we do, should be shaped by God. And that is what we set about to do by preaching. That preaching—and our practices—should match what God requires of us—to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. And so the pastoral is political—but not partisan. Please, God, make it so.