This past week, our elders met to pray and talk about our church and the level of churning in our nation these days around issues of political decisions and tone and divisiveness. The consensus was that if we're in a series called "Flourishing," we need to take a week and talk together about how to follow Jesus in a politically challenging climate.
I ended up scrapping the sermon I was going to do and writing this one, which our elders have all read and on which we all stand together.
If you've been around our church long, you know we have a deep commitment to being a Jesus-centered church and not to allow our mission to be distracted by any political agenda. That will never change. People will sometimes ask, "Is your church right-wing or left-wing?" The answer is that we're for the whole bird.
If we were to respond to every political controversy that comes up, we'd end up talking about political policy every week. That we won't do. However, over the past few weeks, we have received so many questions from so many people of all different political positions asking for teaching on how to think Biblically these days. It seemed clear to our elders that to simply remain silent would be sending the wrong message.
So I want to ask you: Will you let me pastor you this weekend? Will you be willing to put aside fear or anger or judgement and together be open and humble before God's Word and God's Spirit for these next moments?
I believe God is calling us to be our best selves in this moment. Jesus said to his followers, "You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden" (Matt. 5:14). I believe God is willing and able to help us become that light, if we will humble ourselves together before him.
Naming some concerns
I want to name some of the concerns we have received in conversations and emails from many of you. I want to try to lay them out as clearly and even-handedly as I can and then reflect together on how God might want us to think and respond.
One concern is the tone of political discourse. I know of folks, including Christian leaders, who have said on Facebook, "If you voted for the person I didn't vote for, I will unfriend you."
Another concern is for the well-being of those who are most vulnerable among us. We know that God speaks often about doing justice for the poor and the sojourner—and much of the conversation right now is about immigrants and refugees. How should we respond? And as Christ-followers, how do we take action in regards to our beliefs?
Some people have expressed concern that if they speak of the need for secure borders or for people applying for entry into the country to follow the laws, they will be labeled as uncaring or worse.
Another concern is for the role and dignity of women. We want our church to be the first place to celebrate that it was God who created women and men equally in his image. This is not only a policy issue; there have been words and behaviors by our current President that are disturbing to any Christ-follower. Other people—while equally sharing that concern—have noted that there have been other presidents of other parties plagued by sexual scandals, and that if we get in the business of critiquing presidential behavior, it's going to be a full-time job.
There are other concerns that might be related to leadership style. This is a political leadership style that causes some people who have felt quite marginalized and unrepresented to say, "Somebody gets it. Someone will fight for me." Others are concerned that this style could undermine important democratic institutions, or scapegoat particular nations or races or ethnic groups, or lead to some people being demeaned and treated without dignity and respect.
Another concern is over ethnic divisions within the body of Christ. Exit polls after the election showed majorities of white Catholics and Protestants voted for Trump, with many of them citing hopes that the result would restrict abortion or protect religious liberty. Many Christians of other ethnicities supported Clinton, and they often cited factors like her support for immigrants or for civil rights.
There are enough other concerns from all sides that they could fill up the rest of this talk. But I don't think God wants us just to name concerns. I think God wants us to respond.
I think moments like these can become what a friend of mine calls "crucible moments": moments that bring us to greater clarity and greater resolve and purer hearts and deeper unity. So, what does the church do in politically turbulent times?
We proclaim God's truth
We speak to biblical values. These values should inform, but will always transcend, human political processes. "But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:20). This means that as followers of Jesus, we engage in political process, but we give our ultimate allegiance to no party or leader or human government. We place our deepest trust in Jesus alone.
We proclaim the worth of every human being, no matter their birth, gender, ethnicity, culture, or creed, because they bear the image of God and are the object of his costly love, revealed in the cross of Christ. We proclaim that God is a God who loves every human being and therefore is deeply concerned about justice and compassion and the welfare of the poor.
"This is what the Lord Almighty said: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other'" (Zech. 7:9-10). In the ancient world, those were the people most at risk. And God says that anyone who has a heart like his heart will be concerned for the most vulnerable. A just society will share those concerns.
As a church, we do not get into the business of policy evaluation. I'll say a word about that. For example, governments have to decide, "Will there be a minimum wage, and where will it be set?" There can and will be differences between well-intentioned Christ-followers about what policy will create the best results. That's a discussion that requires not only the commitment to help the poor but the wisdom about macro-economics that will lead to not only good intentions, but good results. If a pastor who is not trained in economics pontificates from the pulpit about economic policy, she or he is squandering the moral and spiritual authority of the Scripture.
What is true for a follower of Jesus is that no one can say, "I don't care about the poor; I just want policies that will enrich myself no matter what."
Christian political scientist Mark Amstutz notes one of the key scholarly debates around immigration policy is that both national and international well-being involve the tensions between building cohesive national entities (communitarianism) and having wide access into a country (cosmopolitanism). The local church's job is not to say, "Here's the right number of people who should cross the border."
It is my job—and our job—to say that if you are a follower of Jesus, you will gladly and sacrificially give and serve to care for the alien.
It is our job to say that if you are a follower of Jesus and you see someone who is Muslim, your calling as a Christ-follower is to extend the love of Jesus, to seek to be their friend, to welcome them into your life, and to will and work for their good.
It is our job to say the leaders of nations will be accountable to God for the treatment of the alien, and Christians—including some in our congregation—who are trained in that area can do a great service to God and humanity, and we should pray for you and all seek to be appropriately informed.
We humble ourselves before God and others
Because politics involves power, it carries a constant temptation to arrogance and hubris.
There's a story in Acts that's quite sobering in this regard.
(Read Acts 12:21-24)
Before I judge old Herod, I need to begin by taking a look at me. Politics in our day will tempt people to self-righteousness and arrogance that we get blind to. I want to say—as part of your spiritual formation—that when a sense of superiority or judgment wells up inside you, stop. Take a deep, honest, internal look. Humble yourself.
Part of following Jesus means training myself to listen to reason even when I'm in the grip of a powerful emotion. People can get emotional and unreasonable discussing politics. It becomes extremely important, as a follower of Jesus, to identify my emotion and have some distance from it so I can be open to reason. Christians, of all people, should have the greatest regard for critical reasoning and revering facts. Our faith is built on the fact of the crucifixion and the fact of the resurrection.
Talk radio and cable TV and social media generate ratings and hits with incendiary emotion and "us versus them" bomb-throwing. That gets our attention. It gets ratings. Over time, it can cause you to dehumanize people you disagree with and use the very correctness you are so certain of to corrode your soul. Beware of the power of strong emotion combined with a sense of righteousness.
Oliver Cromwell was actually speaking to the governing body of the Presbyterian Church when he said these wise words: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." Or, at the very least, think: Maybe the person I disagree with is not my moral inferior.
People also wonder: How do I express deep indignation about injustice—as the prophets of old did? I would recommend two voices from American history: Abraham Lincoln, particularly the Second Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King Jr., particularly his 1963 commitment card to nonviolence. If it's possible that you have a tiny bit less moral clarity than Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., you might want to ratchet your political rhetoric down just a tad.
We make disciples
The sociologist James Davidson Hunter notes in his book To Change the World that when a society is healthy, many different spheres flourish—including art, education, commerce, and religion. But when societies begin to fracture, everything begins to revolve around politics. Everyone begins to think that the real way to produce change is to gain political power. The reason for that is that the political sphere is the only one that has access to coercive power.
When I was small, if my parents wanted me to do something and I didn't want to, I'd ask them, "Why?" They'd give me reasons, and I'd keep rejecting them, and eventually they'd play the parent card: "Because I said so." I always said that when I grew up, I'd never say that to my kids. But I did. That's coercive power. That's why they're in counseling today.
In the political arena (and only there), you can pass laws and direct officers and force people to follow the rules you set. The more fragmented a society is, the more people want political power because then they can make the laws and force other people to do what they think is right. Eventually, anything that is not political is seen as not being relevant.
Power now does the work that culture used to do. This is seen in the tendency toward the politicization of nearly everything...Politicization means that the final arbiter within most of social life is the coercive power of the state. Our times amply demonstrate that it is far easier to force one's will upon others through legal and political means than it is to persuade them or negotiate compromise with them. What adds pathos to this situation is the presence of resentment, defined by a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge. (James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World)
This was, for me, a dense book, but it was deeply helpful in thinking about the church and politics.
The increasingly common notion that a church is relevant only to the extent that it's "political" is profoundly misguided. That was precisely the temptation offered to Jesus: "Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 'All this I will give you,' he said, 'if you will bow down and worship me'" (Matt. 4:8-9).
"Be relevant. Seize political power, and you can change the world."
Jesus started a revolution that still changes the world. But it is not rooted in coercive human power; it is rooted in divine love. Do you understand? He didn't do that by accident. He didn't get lucky. He knew exactly what he was doing.
For human beings, power tends to become an end in itself. Coercive power always tends to breed resistance. Coercive power always has unintended consequences.
Social, economic, and political systems matter. Christians should be devoted to helping those systems reflect God's character and justice. But it is a matter of deep fact that no particular set of economic or political arrangements can rearrange the human heart and redeem spoiled human character. Jesus alone does this—and if you want him to do this in you, you become his disciple.
I'll tell you one moment this dawned on me. A brilliant Harvard thinker named Michael Porter talked about an urban renewal project in Newark, New Jersey, that he was involved in—using best practice methods like sustainable change and strength-based development. He said part of what made this economic development possible was the realization that because of population density, Newark had the same purchasing power per square acre as Beverly Hills.
And the thought that struck me was: This is a great project. But is the goal to reproduce Beverly Hills? Even if, through economic and political brilliance, we could turn the world into Beverly Hills—would evil be arrested? Would justice roll like water? Would goodness flourish in the human heart? Would it solve the problem of spiritual poverty?
What is the political or economic system that says: "We aim to produce persons of noble character and sacrificial love?"
T. S. Eliot once described current human efforts as trying to find a system of order so perfect that we don't have to be good. That is why Jesus did not send out his disciples to start governments. They were instead to establish beachheads of his person and message and way precisely in the midst of a broken, unjust, greedy, racist, privilege-grasping world. And that is why, without apology, we as a church are not in the policy-making business; we are in the disciple-making business.
How do we respond?
Pray I do not mean prayer as a copout or a posture of passivity. Prayer changes things. God responds to prayer. We are called to cry out to him daily: "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven."
"I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
This verse is so interesting—it most likely comes not long before the end of Paul's life. He was mostly likely killed by the emperor Nero. He's commanded people to pray for the political leader who has already imprisoned him and is going to kill him.
How are you going to stop that movement? He doesn't do what Nero wants him to do. He keeps preaching Jesus. But he doesn't stop praying for Nero. When we were meeting this week, one of the elders said, "I realized there have been presidents where I spent more time complaining about them than praying for them."
It's interesting that the Bible never commands us to complain about our leaders or to defend them. But it says a lot about praying for them. Pray for our nation. I am committed to praying for our President and our Congress and our country every day. I want to call you to do the same thing. Pray for the media. Pray for people who feel vulnerable. I was talking to a couple last week—they have adopted a little eight-year-old boy from Africa. He came home crying after the inauguration because he said he was afraid he would be deported and sent away from his home. I understand some folks will say that's because of the administration, and some folks will say that's because of excessive fear-mongering by opponents of the administration, and some will say both.
What I want to say is: Whatever the cause, there's a little guy out there who feels very vulnerable right now, and we want to pray. There are vulnerable people all around us. There are 20 million refugees in the world. Half of them are children. Another 40 million human beings have been displaced in their own countries. In 2015, half a million refugees poured into Europe; thousands died trying to cross the sea or in a cramped van.
I hope our country does its best by them. I hope our best leaders and thinkers can mobilize the national will to be of maximum help. But as a pastor, I will call on everyone who follows Jesus to pray for them. When you see a picture, when you read a story—cry out to God for justice and mercy. As a pastor, I will remind you that the Lord we follow was a refugee when he was a little boy. Ask: "God, what might I be able to do?"
I'll challenge us further. Jesus said: "[L]ove your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:44-45). Pick someone in the political realm whom you don't like. Write down their name in your Bible. Pray for them on a regular basis.
Act Jesus called his followers to act, to care for the least of these, to love their neighbor, to give sacrificially, to serve joyfully. Too often, we in the church have failed in the simple call of Jesus to humbly, regularly, personally get involved and serve. Not just talk, not just bloviate: Serve.
Many people in our congregation have helped make possible a number of ways to serve. In our local school district, there's a total enrollment of 3,069 students, and 1,294 are designated as homeless. Anyone who's a follower of Jesus—whatever their political affiliation—will have a broken heart over the fact that 40 percent of children in one district do not have a place to call home.
There are 1,000 ways you do serve—or could serve. It actually is the church's calling to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Love I don't mean bland words, conflict-avoidance, spiritual happy talk, or superficial politeness. I mean that you seek transformation from God through prayer and following Jesus, so that he makes you the kind of person who genuinely wills the good as God views the good for all the people in your life—including the most vulnerable and including the people you're most likely to hold contempt for.
Love listens. If you're a small group leader, create a safe place where people can talk and act and pray together and where you don't allow arrogance or contempt to divide the body of Christ.
Lots of churches and lots of pastors have been talking about this issue. The easiest churches to pastor are those where everybody voted the same way. Normally, emotions ramp up around elections, and then afterwards, people breathe a sigh of relief. This time, the tension kept right on building. This is especially true on social media, where one pastor I know said in the course of three paragraphs he saw some people violate seven of the 10 Commandments.
Our country is desperate for an authentic community where people can have political differences—and yet love wins.
It has happened before. Once a rabbi formed a small group; he invited a tax collector who partnered with the Romans, and he invited a Zealot who hated the Romans. This was not a mistake. They found a unity that changed the world. It wasn't on the politics card. It was on the Jesus card.
It can happen. I see it on our elder board. I see it in my small group. It can happen in me. It can happen in you. Let's ask God to do in us—and in our church, and in our country, and in our world—what we cannot do on our own.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.