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A Body at Work: Politics, Protest, and Praise

Recently I was asked by a frustrated Christian how I might respond to the imprecation, "keep your damned politics out of my church."  I asked her to allow me think on this - as it is something that I have wrestled with in my personal ministry but have rarely spoken about in a pastoral context.  Comforted by the promises of Jesus Christ in Matthew 10:20 and Luke 12:12 I offered the following encouragement.

I riffed on the famous quip by German novelist Thomas Mann.  I said, "Everything is politics. And nobody goes to church on Sunday to feel bad."  On balance, these two counterweights have informed nearly every sermon I've ever preached and my efforts at encouraging fellow pilgrims to repair this broken world and build upon it the Kingdom of God.

I serve as the 29th Senior Pastor of a church that is nearly two centuries old.  Our congregation is older than the city in which we reside. Kalamazoo is a marvelous town of roughly 80,000 inhabitants and we view our mission focus as a principally local concern.  We are descendents of Puritan stock and take seriously Winthrop’s words that we ought to establish ourselves as “a City upon a Hill.”  Communalism is a deep-rooted theological constant among traditional Congregationalists.  As puritans, we are also thoroughly intolerant of sin. As we view sin through the Biblical lens of the oppressive actions of “powers and principalities,” it is incumbent upon us to use the capacity of our body (the Body of Christ) to confront, condemn, and ultimately exorsize the demonic forces of systemic sin (racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc.)

Historically, our church has sheltered refugees from every war involving U.S. military engagement since 1835.  In the 1850s, we willfully and publicly violated the Federal Fugitive Slaves Act in order to provide cover, accommodations, and supplies to Americans fleeing the state violence of chattel slavery.  Sojourner Truth preached in our pulpit. Today, we manifest these core, theological values by advocating spiritually and materially for marriage equality, support for the immigrant and wanderer, ending the unnatural abomination of homelessness, and providing radical hospitality in our current house of worship.  Each of these issues stem from a Biblical mandate.

To be absolutely clear, we are not liberals.  We do not “celebrate” or “endorse” any political party.  In our affiliated denomination, the United Church of Christ, you will often hear it said: “We aren’t liberal.  We’re just early.” Most, if not all, of the positions we stake on scriptural grounds (i.e. the abolition of slavery, the ordination of women, persons of color, and lgbtq individuals, the enfranchisement of women, opposition to wars of aggression, marriage equality) typically become “common practice” in the greater church within a generation or two after adoption by our independent churches.

Our reasons for selectively taking church-wide positions on ministry are typically the culmination of a great deal of prayer, the study of God’s Word, and advice from the individuals directly affected by the issue.  Recently, we voted to become a Public Sanctuary Church and are now protecting a 63 year-old woman from deportation at the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We share the use of our campus with over 130 different community justice, arts, and support organizations and nearly 14,000 unique visitors passed through our doors last year.  We have revitalized the traditional practice of hosting town-hall meetings in Congregational Churches. We share our building completely free of cost or expectation.  Our church’s benevolence provides direct cash assistance to those in need, absent the red-tape of our bureaucratic government or the Kafka-esque process of “proving need” established by other social service agencies.  We donated the use of our chapel to another church that was at risk of closing.

A recent evening town-hall meeting held in the historic sanctuary of the First Congregational Church

These and other actions are preceded by a need, a call for action, critical reflection on God’s Word, and typically conclude with a congregational vote.

Are these ministries “political” by nature?  If we define political as, “having to do with a particular political party or party agenda,” then the answer is, “no.”  If, on the other hand, we adopt a more traditional definition of politics as, “concerning public affairs and public well-being,” then they are certainly political issues.  Our concerns stem not from loyalty to some political party or figure - but rather from God’s high expectations for the practicing Christian. I gave a sermon in which I channeled the words of a preacher I greatly admire, lightly admonishing a few parishioners (which led to some outrage): “Some of you are willing to knock on doors for Bernie Sanders but you refuse to knock on doors for Jesus Christ - and this tells me a little bit about where you believe the real power in the universe resides.”  For all I know - in another century we may be lambasted as backward, conservative relics. Our so-called “liberal” identity is a manufactured product of a secular culture responding subjectively to a church tradition that predates modern liberalism by almost three hundred years.
Church sign addressing the protests over the Dakota Access Pipe Line

Supplies donated to the water protectors at Standing Rock Reservation were blessed during a Sunday morning worship service

But what does this mean for parishioners who are frustrated or disagree with our common ministries?  Our congregational votes are rarely unanimous. Congregationalists speak their minds and vote their conscience.  By this measure, we are a remarkably healthy church. Our members know that if they stand and voice an opinion, no matter how unpopular, they will never be shunned or held to a separate standard than the dissenting majority.  We are, after all, a body made of many members.  While our church does enforce church discipline our disciplinary procedures are reserved for abusive or criminal behaviors.  We would never consider exercising church discipline to punish a member for a differing opinion - political or otherwise.  Thankfully, God has provided us with the gift of worship and praise by which we can be made whole, regardless of our diversity of thought and behavior.

Every single Sunday morning is a celebration.  Every Sunday morning is a little Easter.  Every Sunday we rise with dawn and exalt our creator and the work accomplished through the empty tomb by our Risen Savior.  On Sunday morning, it no longer matters where we reside on the political or economic spectrum. Indeed, if our worship is authentic, these things cannot intrude upon our joy.
Joy comes with the dawn.  It comes not with some metric or pedagogy for the coming week, but rather with the simple anamnesis of who we actually are.  We are stewards of creation, made in the very image and likeness of God (in whom there is resplendent diversity), who have been completely and irrevocably set free from the powers of sin and death.  This is Sunday morning (and, as we have it, Sunday evening as well). The message from the pulpit may rage against the criminal injustices of sinful systems and oppressive regimes - but it is only all the more in order to rejoice over their coming collapse and the ultimate reign of God’s shalom.  There is nothing that we cannot accomplish through our faith in Jesus Christ and our fealty to the Bible.

I have received no small measure of impatient criticism from my peers within my denomination and elsewhere regarding our excessive, exuberant joy on Sunday morning.  Some prefer Sunday morning as an opportunity for demonstration or “raising awareness” about the rampant cruelties in our mission field. Recently, a small army of defectors from a neighboring city abandoned their congregation for our own after a Sunday worship event.  (This happens as frequently in Congregational Churches as in other denominations - I suspect, perhaps, with greater frequency.) Their pastors had held an obligatory service of mourning for black victims of state police violence. When dissenters appear at my door I take their concerns seriously while gently encouraging to make their way back home.  These are not refugees - they are rather protestors. Thankfully, most of them did return to their home church. However I received an aggrieved complaint from a fellow clergyperson demanding to know why we didn’t hold such a worship session.  I responded that we had done our work - we had hosted a very large protest and “die-in” in the adjacent park, held talk sessions with young folk targeted by police aggression, spent time investigating our own Public Safety Department, and we placed a “Black Lives Matter” banner in a prominent place much to the ire of Monday morning passersby. On the Sunday morning in question we had marked this state violence with a moment of silence and a reading of the names of those afflicted. But then we began to praise God.  Because, ultimately, we know that God is going to conquer this terrible evil - and that we have a critically important role to play in the battle.  We can hear the victory refrain even now in the distant wind. And every single one of us - no matter our political affiliation - has a role to play in this journey.  We do the painful, critical work of understanding our role in powers and principalities six days a week.  On Sunday, however, we rejoice without ceasing. Because, ultimately, nobody goes to church on Sunday morning to feel bad.  And after a sufficient amount of suffering, even the most stalwart Christian would prefer to simply sleep in.

Our journey into the Word of God is going to naturally challenge our personal politics.  You cannot get very far on the Jesus path without acknowledging God’s preferential option for the poor.  It is as though it’s written in letters ten feet tall. There will always be those who claim that “illegal immigrants” are somehow outside of God’s protection or the domain of the church.  That the children murdered by autolatrous fascists and their servile agents “got what they deserved.” That the prison population serving unjust sentences as chattel slaves to the corporate estate are receiving their “just desserts.”  There will always be those who stand firmly rooted outside the Kingdom of God. And God knows them by their fruits. Yet there will always be at least one congregation, on the corner of one park, in the center of one little rust-belt city that is going to unapologetically fly the pennant of the conquering lamb.  When we begin and end in the very body of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can have a spiritual clarity that defies the raging world and all its many voices and turns, instead, to the still, soft voice of God and obediently follows wherever it leads.

We have no politics but the politics of Jesus Christ.  Throughout the week we study, pray, meditate, interview, protest, and converse over shared meals.  Occasionally, we reach a conclusion. Regardless, on Sunday morning we rejoice, and rejoice, and rejoice always.


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