Preaching Jesus in a politically-charged climate.
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I pastor a church made up of (at best guess) 40% Democrats, 40% Republicans, and 20% unaffiliated. In short, that's a rather politically inclined (and charged) church community. It creates, I admit, quite the homiletical headache. Broadly, the Democrats desire me to teach more on the "systemic" issues of society—ecological degradation, racism, and marriage equality. The other half, however, wish I talked more about "personal" issues—repentance, sexual fidelity, and methods for a healthy prayer life. Just about everyone is looking for something different; a reality that might just drive just about any preacher insane. It certainly does me!
It's an important question: how does one preach faithfully in a politically-charged climate?
The gospel is political
We must begin with a simple truth: the gospel is political. Into the old creation, Jesus Christ descended that he might establish a "new creation." There, it is written, "the old things will pass away." (2 Cor. 5:17) This new "administration of grace" (Eph. 3:2) would instigate swift and immediate change. Jesus' Kingdom, he would say, was "at hand." (Matt. 3:2) It was not far off or long coming or speculative. It was here and now. Paul, for this reason, would call Jesus the "Second Adam," (1 Cor. 15:45) the One who does away with the kingdom of the first Adam, which brought death to the story of creation. In sum, Jesus' work undoes this entire "kingdom of darkness," "transferring" (Col. 1:13) a people into this new kingdom. The way it is done is not a mistake—he would "die on a tree" (Acts 5:30). It is not without weight that the narrative of death would be undone on the very thing where it began—a tree. The political overtones are not insignificant. In short, one might say Jesus came to make creation great … again.
As preachers, we recognize that the pulpit plays a unique place in the life of faith. For it is here that we understand our words to be an invitation into this new kingdom and new world. Preaching invites us into God's kingdom that is always "at hand." It is there that we "hold out the word of life" (Phil. 2:16) to a dark and dying world.
That perennial danger lurks when we misappropriate our task and hold out anything other than this "word of life"—our opinions, conjecture, or speculations. This couldn't be truer than in a politically charged culture like our own. Theologian Leonard Sweet, in his book Giving Blood, has identified what he calls one of the worst things a preacher can do: "[T]o give people the sense that their worship experience has been hijacked—hijacked by politics, by personal agendas, by individual druthers, by private vendettas." But when we prop up our own political conclusions regardless of what the text says we demonstrate that we love our own preaching more than God's people or even God himself. That raises the question: how do we preach about the politics of Jesus while staying faithful to the task of the "word of life"?
'Jesus is Lord': Can we not preach politically?
The question gets asked often in preaching circles: should we preach politics?
"Jesus is Lord" (1 Cor. 12:3). This was the confession of the early church. Given that the popular notions of Lordship were only attributed to Caesar at the time with the saying "Caesar is Lord," one can quickly see that the very confession of the church was political in nature. The reign of God always has been political. One cannot read the Prophets—Isaiah in particular—without recognizing political overtones. Isaiah boldly foresees the reign of Jesus: "Of the greatness of his government and peace, there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne …" (9:12).
Should we preach politics? Can anyone actually say the phrase "Jesus is Lord" and, with a straight face, say the gospel has nothing to do with politics? In a sense, all gospel preaching is politics. Gospel preaching holds up a different Lord. It preaches an alternative administration. It proclaims that a new kingdom is present. In fact, as Michael Green has pointed out in his book Evangelism in the Early Church, this is why primitive Christianity was as despised as it was in the first-century. Green reminds us that the Roman world held that everyone was to give homage and faithful worship to the state religion (called religio). With that in place, people could have whatever personal superstitions they wished (called superstitio). For the Romans, your personal superstitions were fine as long as you kept them to yourself and didn't rock the Roman boat.
A remnant of this kind of thinking is still prevalent in today's Western world. For example, the church is a non-profit organization. As such, it is illegal for a non-profit organization to take monies and then simultaneously advocate for ballots or candidates from the pulpit. While some Christians have fought against this in what has been called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," it should be understood as a footnote on the old Roman notion of religio and superstitio. "What is true for you may be true for you," the spirit of Rome says, "… just keep it to yourself and out of the affairs of politics."
The problem is that the Christian belief in the gospel cannot not affect our understanding of politics. Sadly, there is a kind of cultural hypocrisy around Christians entering the political conversation. It is fine and dandy for anyone to do politics so long as it doesn't actually find its grounding in one's faith. One remembers that famous story when Mahatma Gandhi told his preacher friend E. Stanley Jones, "Don't attempt to propagate your faith; just live it. Be like the rose, which, without a word, silently exudes its perfume and attracts the attention of the people." Jones's response was timely and important: he reminded Gandhi that he was the greatest propagator his own beliefs on independence and freedom from British rule. Why, he asked, was it okay for Gandhi to preach politics but Jones wasn't?
The reason that Christians are not entirely welcomed into the political conversation is mostly our fault. For far too long, we have equated Jesus with one political party. In his book, The Hardest Sermon You'll Ever Have to Preach, Bryan Chappell laments that for nearly a decade, "… the voice of the political right has often coalesced with evangelical priorities, making it difficult for many to separate religious conviction from political agendas." And for that, we have been asked to leave our faith at the door.
But a Christian cannot leave their faith at the door in the same way a candle cannot leave its light at the door. The church is called to be "salt" and "light." Our faith and gospel should be a blessing to the world of politics. As that famous Letter to Diognetus proclaims: "What Christians are in the world, the soul is in the body."
But salt and light should not attempt to rule over the world. Certainly, Jesus refused to rule in the way the world understood "rulership." John's gospel tells us that people came to "make Jesus king" to which he left and entered a time of recluse prayer (John 6). Jesus refused to be made king by people. Why? Jesus refused to be forced into kingship because you can't force someone to become something they already are. Jesus refused to let people do something for him what he knew only his Father could accomplish.
The church of Jesus has confused preaching the gospel of Jesus with preaching a shallow, selective, non-holistic partisan ideology that picks and chooses the parts of Jesus that it likes. The politics of Jesus and our partisan ideologies are, without question, worlds apart. I think that is exactly what Cardinal Shuhard meant when he said, "To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God did not exist." A witness doesn't do propaganda. A witness witnesses to what is truth. And our ideologies are not the hope of the world.
Jesus Christ is the hope of the world. Jesus is that third-party candidate who refuses to run for the offices we've created for him. He is that eternal incumbent who chooses to be enthroned by willingly being dethroned to the tomb of death and hell only to start a revolution with people after the primaries are finished. His kingdom is not our kingdom. And if the establishment isn't worried, then we aren't following him.
Preaching politics, practically speaking
As I began, I mentioned the diversity of our congregation. My goal—a goal I believe similar to that of Jesus—is to teach Matthew the Tax Collector to learn to worship God alongside Simon the Zealot. And if that can happen, then I believe it means we are coming close to creating a church culture that, in the words of Shuhard, "would not make sense if God did not exist." That is, I believe that it is only in the church of Jesus where God is worshipped where people of different political ideologies can actually learn to love one another and serve alongside each other.
As we have created a church culture like this, we have learned a lot. Three ideas come to mind.
First, it's the primary task of preaching to convert souls to Jesus, not to our agendas. There is a reason Luther said that the Christian would go through three conversions: heart, mind, and purse. Our politics don't convert. Now, our minds and hearts do and that may certainly change the way we vote. But to suggest that conversion should automatically mean a conversion from one political party to another is unfounded, ungrounded, and borderline heretical. The church of Jesus is not that community of the partisan aligned—it is the community of Jesus Christ.
I have recently written on this in my book The Dusty Ones:
This is my content as a preacher: Jesus Christ. A preacher isn't a peddler of opinions. A preacher, above all, is tasked with bearing the fact of Christ's good news. A preacher isn't called to a series of opinions or cute creative ideas; indeed, preaching is the crucifixion of all opinion under the cross of Jesus. The highest calling of a preacher is not primarily to lay forth this doctrinal opinion or that doctrinal opinion, this denomination or that denomination, this view of the end-times or that view of the end-times. Their task is instead the bold proclamation that each of our lives is either being built upon Christ or anything else. There's no middle ground.
Second, there are times when the preacher needs to stand up and make a stand against something. There are different kinds of sermons for different moments. There are pastoral sermons for when a congregation needs to be reminded of the grace of God. There are sermons that are geared for the non-believer. And there are prophetic sermons. These are those times in which someone needs to stand up and take a stand for something that God cares deeply about.
Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer ministering in the face of the Third Reich. In reading his own reflection of standing up to the Gestapo, one finds that there are times in which our preaching must take on a political work. He laments that he did not take up the political task before it was too late for Germany. In his essay, "Costly Grace," Bonhoeffer writes, "We baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without asking awkward questions, or insisting on strict conditions … We poured forth unending streams of grace …"
His point? We never asked hard questions. We let things continue. We were okay with the status quo. There are times preaching must stand up to the darkness of the age. And at times this will be our role as pastors.
Third, and finally, our preaching must always be accessible by those on both sides of the aisle. I find St. Basil's rules for preaching to be edifying here. Basil, an early homiletical genius, writes, "We must not use the word of teaching in an ostentatious or huckstering way, flattering the hearers and satisfying our own pleasures or needs; but we must be such men as speak for the glory of God in his presence."
Huckster. A huckster is a mercenary who can sell anything for profit. It is someone who can turn anything into something that benefits themselves or their agenda. That word is the same as Paul's when he said we were not to be "peddlers" of God's Word (2 Cor. 2:17). That is, we are not to form it in our image. And, again, the easiest path is to create a church culture where agreement with the preacher is assumed, and, in many cases, required.
Sadly, too often than not, we are Jesus's hucksters. We take his Word and his ideas and his teachings and using them for our own means. This destroys our witness in a political age, because every political word from the pulpit is seen as a chance to bolster our own politic, rather than Jesus'. For this evangelical, this has been very important for me. I came to the realization years ago that if my community is a community of people who all agree with me politically, we have ceased being Jesus' church and have become my cult.
Embracing political diversity around the good news of Jesus' kingdom isn't merely a good idea—it reflects the methodology of Jesus who, I believe, intentionally called people of different political ideologies to himself for a common purpose.
A. J. Swoboda is the pastor of Theophilus in Portland, Oregon, a professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, and the author of Messy: God Likes It That Way.