Thoughts from Pastor Matt…
I’d already been thinking I’d write this month’s “Have a Minute?” on the topic of faith and politics… offering my own 2¢ (or, perhaps, slightly more than 2¢) on some of the ways we think about the relationship between these two fields, and how we do so with both integrity and faithfulness as Christians. I’d been planning to talk about the difference between values and policies. Namely, I think it’s absolutely appropriate for us as church to talk openly and with insistence about what sorts of things we should hold up as values and what we should seek as valued outcomes in our world, even as we might be a bit more hesitant to insist on specific policy paths to get us there, since we recognize that there may be more than one path to get us to the values and valued outcomes we seek.
But then this past week happened. This past week, in which our nation’s eyes (and, in fact, the world’s eyes) have been drawn to detention centers near the Mexican border where children have been separated from their parents/families… This past week, in which our nation’s Attorney General cited Christian biblical scripture in an attempt to justify what’s being practiced… And so, in the wake of such a week, it seemed impossible not to address matters around the relationship between faith and “politics”. (And obviously, I don’t know where we’ll be with this story by the time you read this; just in the past 24 hours of my writing this article, the Administration has changed its path regarding future detainees, although the situation with the children currently separated remains unclear.)
On some level, it’s hard to know where to begin to even try to address the moral atrocity we’re witnessing in this time, or what to say that hasn’t already been said. The Christian faith community has been united in its opposition to and disgust at the Administration’s child separation practices, and at Mr. Sessions’ use co-option of Christian scripture in defense—united in a way I’ve never seen in my life time. When’s the last time you witnessed the official voices of the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the liberal/historic-mainline Protestant denominations (UCC, Presbyterian, United Methodist, ELCA Lutheran, Episcopalian, etc.), the interfaith community, and the Mormons all in agreement about anything?! And yet, indeed, we see it this week: forcibly separating children from their families is wrong, no matter their so-called “status”.
There is much that could be said about the blatant misuse of scripture we saw by Mr. Sessions. To begin with, context is everything. In the case of Romans 13, the apostle Paul—as a person who was not the ruling authority—was giving some asked-for advice to people who were also not the authorities, and doing so simply in order to help the early Christian community in Rome not get kicked out of Rome. In Mr. Sessions’ use, though, the verse became a violent weapon used by someone in authority… the same way it was used to justify slavery, the same way abusers use it to justify their abuse of the abused, and so on. Context is everything! After all, if you’re going to read and apply Romans 13:1 (“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established”) in a so-called “literal” way, wouldn’t it be equally relevant to North Korea, Iran, slavery and the Jim Crow South, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and so on? Besides that, in Acts 4, Peter and John explicitly say that they have to listen to God rather than the authorities… and at the end of the day, as Christians we worship and follow One who was executed by the authorities because of his threat to the authorities.
As Christians, we must get over the fallacy that we have nothing to say (or that we should have nothing to say) when it comes to things people consider “political”. That’s simply not biblical, nor is it faithful to our particular heritage as Reformed Christians and descendants of the English Puritans and New England Congregationalists. If anything, the Puritans sought to free the church from the control of the civil authorities in order that the church might be able to have a stronger voice of prophetic critique, rather than simply be beholden to the civil powers.
We also have to get over the idea that we can be both faithful and inoffensive. When we are truly living and acting as disciples of Jesus, we will say things and do things that will make others upset. Some of those “others” may even be people we know, or even other people right here in this congregation. My friend and UCC minister colleague Emily Heath writes:
In treacherous times, when powerful people and systems threaten us or others, we have to ask what God wants us to do—and we have to accept that doing it will cost us something. While there is a chance that the choices faith asks us to make will result in physical death, as it did for Bonhoeffer, the cost is likely to stop short of that. Choosing to do the right thing probably won’t make our hearts stop beating.
But what if it did? What would be worth that risk? If you are like most people, your list of people and ideals you’d be willing to die for is a very short one. Yet there’s something else we seem to be willing to risk our lives for: our fears. We allow fear to deprive us not of heartbeats and breaths, but of something even more precious: the fullness and beauty of a life lived well.
For those of us who believe that we rest in the hands of an eternal and ever-loving God, living a life full of fear is worse than dying. The great threat to Christian faith is not that we will not be safe from the world’s dangers but that we will be held captive by our fear of them—that we will have more faith in our fear than we have in Christ. This can be hard for North American Christians to understand, since we have rarely faced persecution. But the mission of the church is not to avoid causing a stir, nor to hold on to things that cannot save us. As Jesus says, to save your life you have to lose it.
Christians are not called to recklessness, but we are called to action. In Christ we are given a new freedom to respond to a world in need. So each time the news informs us of something that’s happening that we know is not right or just, the question to ask is what response does God want from us in this moment? When we learn to ask ourselves this, and to truly discern God’s will for us, we begin to find that the greatest risk we can take, the one thing that will make us lose the life we have been given, is to choose not to risk anything at all.
Yours in the journey,
 Emily Heath, “Learning costly resistance from Bonhoeffer”, ChristianCentury.org, 7 June 2018, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/opinion/learning-costly-resistance-bonhoeffer . The essay posted on ChristianCentury.org is excerpted and adapted from Heath’s book Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in an Age of Fear (Pilgrim Press, 2017).