I’ve been pondering something quite a bit as of late. . .
I’m concerned about an ever-growing reality I’m observing in American churches. As our political and cultural discourse continues to stigmatize certain groups and identities, I see a trend within congregations. More and more, when Christians choose to advocate publicly for those who are maligned and vulnerable, they face a backlash of harsh criticism. Most specifically, they are told that their words are “too political.”
Who is raising this criticism?
Like any group of Americans, Christians are divided as they head toward the ballot box in November. I think most anticipate disagreement in the social mediasphere. But the primary context of this criticism — “you’re being too political” — isn’t Facebook or Twitter. The primary context is worship itself.
We all know that religious leaders cannot endorse or advocate for particular political candidates in worship. They can do this as private citizens on their own time in other contexts, including publicly. But they cannot endorse candidates in worship without jeopardizing their congregation’s tax exempt status. More importantly, this is a moral imperative. We believe in the freedom of conscience, and it simply isn’t ethical for a religious leader to dictate how others should cast their votes.
As far as I can tell though, this is not happening in any of the churches I know. (It may be happening somewhere. . . but not anywhere I know). Yet this “you’re being too political” comment is leveled all the time in the churches I do know.
Here’s where the challenge arises: Entire groups of people are being maligned in our political discourse. This is happening regularly, and threats are becoming increasingly overt. We’ve watched this happen throughout the entire election season.
- Mexican immigrants have been labeled criminals and rapists.
- Disabled journalists have been mocked.
- Syrian refugees have been compared with the terrorists that displaced them.
- Black Americans have been attacked when they protest police brutality.
- Muslims have faced the threat of a total immigration ban.
- Women have heard claims of sexual assault reduced to “locker room talk.”
In this election season, we’ve seen entire groups labeled and stigmatized. This has been deeply traumatic for many people. Religious leaders have a dual responsibility to proclaim good news and liberation toward those who are suffering and issue a call toward justice. This is not the responsibility of leaders alone, however. It is the calling for all people of faith. Likewise, it is the calling for all humanity.
But. . . what happens when these words of good news, liberation, and justice are spoken against the rhetoric of the cultural discourse itself? Immediately, people in the pews recall who has spoken against Mexican immigrants, disabled journalists, Syrian refugees, black Americans, Muslim immigrants, and women. Even now, you are likely thinking about Donald Trump because he has indeed stirred up some of this rhetoric. But these forms of marginalization are not limited to him. Other politicians are speaking in these ways. American citizens across the nation are speaking in these ways.
Some applaud candidates for being politically incorrect, expressing admiration for the ways they say whatever they’re thinking. Some of the same people then sit in pews and stifle forms of faith speech, claiming that it’s political and therefore, off-limits.
Sadly, if religious leaders issue calls for justice on behalf these particular oppressed groups and name them from the pulpit. . . people get quite defensive. Religious leaders face backlash and are scapegoated. In some contexts, even their employment is threatened.
We should let all of this sink in. Let’s think about this. . . Christians, are we really going to create a reality in our churches where we cannot stand up for the oppressed because political leaders are the ones publicly speaking the oppressive language? Who ultimately governs our commitment toward the polis (i.e. the city and community) — secular politicians or Jesus? Is it now off-limits to speak love for immigrants, refugees, disabled people, women, and people of other faith traditions?
I’m not advocating for endorsements or partisanship in worship. Far from it. But I am saying that we cannot afford to lose our center. Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
We cannot claim to follow Jesus Christ without loving our neighbors. This means that we must defend them fiercely when they are attacked and marginalized. None of us does this perfectly, of course, but this commitment remains at the center.
Love is never reduced to partisanship, but it must be expansive enough to include our particular neighbors.
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