Why your church (and pastor) can’t be partisan.

Recently a person unknown to me posted his “resistance” oriented event on the Facebook wall of my church. It wasn’t clear what the event entailed and it seemed that it might cross the line into partisan territory. The poster’s profile picture advocated a specific political party, and the language was ambiguous.

I wrote him back and assured him that while I personally was supportive, the church was non-partisan, and I’d have to delete the post. I hoped he understood.

I received back this response: “We are nonpartisan, So the congregational church (sic) does not support civil rights, good to know.”

First, I’ve been given nothing that helps me determine whether the non-partisan part of that statement is true. But, second, I was stunned by the writer’s quick conclusion. This church I serve was an early moral force for abolition. A former pastor marched with Dr. King. They now have an openly gay senior pastor who they sent to Orlando last summer to provide emergency pastoral care for LGBTQ people. This is a church full of people who love their neighbors, near and far. And we are a part of a denomination that has consistently been early to every major Civil Rights challenge of our time.

But this is not a partisan church. It belongs to Jesus Christ, not any candidate or party. We follow the Gospel, and not a party platform. We get it wrong sometimes, but we really do try to get it right. Recently, though, I’ve heard a lot of folks wondering why churches aren’t doing more to confront the current political situation in our country.

I am writing this post as Emily C. Heath, private citizen. I am not writing this post as Emily C. Heath, pastor of a local congregation. I say that, but I can’t deny that the two people are one and the same. The same person writing these words on my personal blog a weekday will use this same (personal) computer to write a sermon for when I get up into the pulpit on Sunday morning.

I get how that can be confusing. And I think that sometimes that’s particularly confusing for people who know me outside of the church.

I have been interested in and involved with politics for over 20 years. The summer I graduated from high school I went off to Washington, DC to serve as a Democratic Congressional intern. I have campaigned for Democratic candidates on the ground. And I currently serve as a delegate to the state convention for my town’s Democratic committee. On my own time, I engage in partisan political activism.

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Phone banking on election day.

I’ve also been involved in the civil rights movements since that time. I came out in 1994 and started marching in Pride parades long before our safety was assured. I remember standing outside a bombed-out gay nightclub in Atlanta in 1997. And I remember traveling to Orlando last summer after the Pulse shootings.

When I wrote a blog post several years ago asking white folks to look at our privilege, I received messages calling me names I can’t print here, and one threat to burn down my church. I’ve been afraid for my personal safety because of my advocacy.

I don’t think I have to prove my progressive bona fides to anyone.

Except apparently I do. And that’s because sometimes well-meaning progressive folks don’t understand that clergy have to remain non-partisan while at church, in the pulpit, or serving in any way as a pastor.

That’s true for two very important reasons: first, the religious reason and, second, the civic reason.

pexels-photo-27633My faith teaches me that my ultimate allegiance is not to any political party, or even to any country. It’s to Christ. That means that when I’m in the pulpit, I’m talking about Christ. And, try as they might, I’ve yet to meet a politician who measures up to Christ.

My faith does shape my political beliefs. Whenever I go in the voting booth and close the curtain, I’m thinking about the Gospels. It was hearing the Gospels for the first time as a high school student that changed my own political thinking. My faith teaches me to care about the “least of these” and one way I do that is by thinking about them when I am voting.

But, I know good Christians who do not vote the way I do. Some of them are in my church, and I’m their pastor too. My sermons on Sunday should challenge them sometimes, just as they should challenge everyone. They should make them think hard about what they believe, and how they will act out their faith in the world. They should make clear that working for justice for all God’s people is not optional. 

This is political in the classic sense in that it concerns the polis, the city or community, and all of God’s people. Pastors must be concerned with their community, state, nation, and world.

But they should never, ever, tell their church for whom or for what party to vote on Election Day. That’s an abuse of power and that’s pastoral malpractice.

The second reason is the civic one. Our separation of church and state is mutually beneficial to both. The church does not get to impose a theocracy, and the state does not get to use the church for its own ends. This is healthy, especially in a society with religious diversity.

I get upset when I see conservative churches flaunting this rule. I don’t like the idea of “voter guides” stuffed in Sunday bulletins, or of pastors in the pulpits stating who they think God wants you to vote for because, as I said, it’s an abuse of power. I’ve heard some progressive pastors saying we should start bending the rules too. I disagree.

Our job as pastors is to teach the faith. It’s to present the Gospel in an honest and relevant manner. And, yes, that means sometimes the Gospel will be political, in the best sense of the word. It will require us to work for justice. It will mean that we speak out about non-discrimination, or climate change, or peace. We do not need to remain silent about those things in church. In fact, we cannot remain silent about those things in church.

But on the other hand, political does not mean partisan. As soon as we start to equate the reign of God with a particular candidate or party, we have committed idolatry, and we have crossed both a moral and civil line.

In a time of deep moral crisis, which I believe our country is now facing, it might feel like that’s not enough. I know there are people who want to hear me denounce specific politicians from the pulpit. They want their church to assure them that their voting record would match Jesus’.

But as your pastor, it’s not my job to give you assurance that God loves your candidate more. (Believe me…I’d love that comfort too.) It’s my job to remind you of your own responsibility, and of the fact that our faith requires our own action in the world. On Sundays you can find encouragement, support, and comfort in the Gospel. You can find the values that will inform your own choices. And, ideally, you should find a message that compels you to go out into the world on Monday mornings bent on shaking up the status-quo.

But if a church is telling you who to vote for, left or right, your church has more than a constitutional problem on your hands. You have a faith problem and you, and the Gospel, deserve better than that. 

Besides, in this time of moral crisis, putting our ultimate faith in the radical love and grace of Christ is the most powerful political and partisan action we can ever take.

 If you resonated with this article, you might enjoy Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity.

 

Crossing the Road from Safety: Sermon for July 10, 2016

This past year I’ve been reading a lot of books that I was supposed to read earlier in life. I was a big reader growing up, but of course you can’t read everything. And so, I went back and tried to fill in the gaps. I read Tom Sawyer last fall, and Huckleberry Finn this spring. And then, this week, I finally read a book that I probably should have read in elementary school: “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are a series of children’s books that reflect his, at the time new-found, Christian faith. Reading this particular book as a Christian adult, it’s hard to miss that he’s retelling the Gospel story. And it’s not giving away too much of the book to tell you that the four children who are the book’s central characters go in search of a lion named Aslan, who acts a whole lot like Christ.

When they are told about Aslan for the first time, one of the children wonders about this lion asking, “but is he safe?” And the answer comes, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

So often we want life to be safe, and too often we equate safety with goodness. And, to be fair, safety is indeed easier. But that doesn’t mean it’s always good, and that doesn’t mean that maintaining our safety is the right choice.

Today’s story from the Gospels reminds us of that. The Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, are asking him who their neighbors are. And Jesus tells a story, one that we have come to know as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A man who is traveling is robbed and beaten and left for dead on the road. And as he is lying there dying, a priest comes along. He sees the man, but doesn’t stop. In fact he crosses the road to avoid him. And then a Levite, another religious leader, comes along, and he crosses the road too. And by this point two men who belonged to the same people as the beaten man, two of his religious leaders, had walked right by. Things looked grim.

But then a third man, a Samaritan walks by. Samaritans were considered so lowly that the beaten man normally would not even speak to them. But Scripture tells us that the Samaritan sees the beaten man and he is “moved with pity”. He bandages his wounds, and takes him to an inn, and pays for it with his own money. Then he tells the innkeeper to feed the man and take care of him, promising that he will return and pay for it all.

Jesus finishes the story and he asks, “So, who was this beaten man’s neighbor?” And the reply comes, “The one who showed him mercy. The Samaritan.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise”.

Sometimes we ask the wrong question. We ask “who is my neighbor?” But the right answer for a Christian is simple. It’s “everyone”. But Jesus asked a different question here. He asked the religious leaders who was the neighbor of the man who had been beaten and left for dead. And in that instance, it wasn’t “everyone”. It wasn’t the two religious leaders who had left him crumpled on the side of the road. Instead, it was the man who had stopped, and given everything to save him.

Neighbors are as neighbors do. Loving our neighbors requires action, or else we aren’t really neighbors. And sometimes loving our neighbors means being willing to put our own safety and comfort at risk.

Jesus never promised us safety. It would be a mistake to think that. In fact, Jesus told us that we must be willing to risk everything to follow him. Or, to use the story from Narnia, of course Jesus isn’t safe. But he’s good.

I’ve wrestled with staying safe but wanting to do good. I’ve wrestled with saying I want to love my neighbors, and actually doing so. I think we all do sometimes.

And, I confess, that some Sundays I have wrestled between the safe option of preaching an easy and unchallenging word, and the good option of risking something in order to follow Jesus.

This was one of those Sundays.

This past week we kept waking up to bad news, in the midst of a summer of bad news. One morning we woke up and heard about Alton Sterling, a man in Baton Rouge, who was shot multiple times during an arrest. The next day, Philando Castile was shot five times while reaching in his back pocket for his wallet during a police stop.

I could get away with saying nothing about this today. We are hundreds of miles removed from the violence. We are not a congregation where most of us typically wrestle with what it means to be black in this country. And by bringing this up, I may be making some of you uncomfortable.

But the lectionary text today was the Good Samaritan. And the question Jesus poses about the man who is crumpled on the side of the road looking for help is “Which one of these was his neighbor?” And the safe answer is “we are all neighbors”. But the good and right answer is “the one who crossed the road to help him”.

I want to be a good neighbor. And this week I remembered what one of our literal neighbors said a little over a year ago when he stood in this sanctuary talking about race in this country. Rev. Bob Thompson stood here and told us that the only place he had ever been called the “n word” in his life was Exeter, New Hampshire.

And so, I can’t ignore my neighbor when he says that. I can’t pretend this is a sermon that should only be preached in Baton Rouge or Minneapolis this week. I can’t walk on by while someone waits for help.
There’s an old expression: “When your neighbor’s house is on fire, you don’t haggle over the cost of your garden hose.” You do what you have to do. You put out the fire.

Take that metaphor further, and there are some other things you don’t do either. First, you don’t deny that your neighbor’s house is burning. Your own house might be safe and comfortable, but if they are running out of theirs, you should believe them when they say they need help.

Second, as an illustration I saw this week showed, you don’t say “well, all houses matter” and then go around spreading water on every house in the neighborhood. True, no one’s house should burn, but if everyone else’s is doing pretty well, and your neighbor’s is on fire, you have to be able to say “this particular house matters” and turn on the hose.

QU7sepVDThat’s why I say “Black Lives Matter”. Not because they matter more or less than the lives of any others, but because right now too many of our African American neighbors are losing theirs. That was true last summer in Charleston. That was true this week in Atlanta where a black man was found hanging from a tree. People are dying. And if we want to be called neighbors, we have to be willing to cross the road and help those who do not have the option of safety.

I want to say this also. I don’t want anything I say this morning to be construed as anti-law enforcement. I have worked as a first responder myself, I have led trauma debriefings with law enforcement, and I have family members and friends who are police officers. I know that the vast majority of officers are good people, who put their lives on the line daily to save others.

And that’s why the shootings this week in Dallas broke my heart too. Five officers will never go home again. There is absolutely no justification for the slaughter of police officers, no matter how angry someone might be. And the man who did this, he was angry. He hated police officers, and he also hated the very same African American activists that were first blamed for this attack.

The reality was that the officers and the activists who led the march the officers were at had a longstanding, positive relationship. And when the shots were fired, they protected one another. While talking heads on television blamed one group, the reality is they were there on the ground, being neighbors to one another, even as they risked being shot.

And I am so tired of people being shot. I am so tired of people having to be afraid. I am so tired of looking at the Scripture for the week and thinking to myself, “And how do I preach about this text in the aftermath of another shooting? Of more hatred? Of injustice? Of xenophobic rhetoric from our so-called leaders?”

I think you might be too.

And if you are, I would say this: we are called to be good…not safe. Because we follow a Lord who, like Aslan, is good, but not safe. And the only hope I have now is that Jesus alone is Lord, and Jesus alone can guide us to a better way. 

We cannot allow our fears or the tools we use to calm them to be our lords anymore. We cannot offer excuses to not cross the road and tend to the broken. We cannot look away, and we cannot choose our own comfort.

I usually try to end my sermon with a comforting word. Something that will give you hope and make you feel good. But today, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell you this: the time for being safe has ended. Now is the time to be good. We must each figure out what that means, and then we must each cross the street, and do what we must in order to earn the title of neighbors. Why? Because Jesus told us to.

Jesus. “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” And in the end, maybe that’s the best sign of hope that we could hope to have. Amen?

For thoughts on putting faith into action in urgent times, check out Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity: https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0829820299?keywords=glorify%20emily%20heath&pc_redir=T1&qid=1453486699&s=books&sr=1-1