I will be glad when this election is over, not because I hate politics, but because I am politically passionate. I am a news junkie and the internet is a dangerous, time-sucking place for me. I grew up in Iowa and I thought it was normal to meet Presidential candidates. My mother has shaken hands with every Democrat running for President since 1968. She has regularly called me with tidbits like “Joe Biden stands to close to people when he talks, he invades my personal space.” My father, who was a Republican, ran an air charter business, and back in the 70s and 80s he regularly flew candidates around the state. He loved Bob Dole and Tom Harkin, because they were both ex-Navy pilots. Dad would let them sit in the pilot’s seat and give them flight instruction between campaign hops. I was a reporter for my college radio station during the 1984 elections. My press pass got me on to George McGovern’s jet in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with only five other reporters. At the end of the press conference he turned to me and asked if I had a question. I have no idea what I asked, but I remember his warmth and humanity.
By age 21, I was completely jaded and cynical, and quit my reporting job. I decided to go to seminary because I wanted to change the world, not report the play-by-play.
As a pastor who believes in the Great Commandment to love my neighbor as myself, I find engagement with world and social activism to be an essential way to love my neighbor, and those who don’t want politics from the pulpit might as well cut out of the Bible the Magnificat, the Sermon on the Mount and all the major and minor prophets. At the same time, I believe that too many pulpits have defined themselves within the narrow confines of transitory political positions rather than transcendent divine ideals, sounding more like the Republican or Democrat Party at prayer, rather than independent voices proclaiming God’s justice and reconciling love for all humanity.
Last October 7, ironically on World Communion Sunday, a group of more than 1000 clergy joined in to the 4th Annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday, for the purpose of endorsing political candidates, and to challenge tax laws that prohibit churches and other non-profits from engaging in electoral politics. Now folks, I don’t think being a non-profit should constrain me from preaching as a prophet. But I don’t see endorsing candidates as all that prophetic. As the Christian Century lead editorial said last week, “When the church has nothing more to say than what could be said in a political stump speech, the church has surely lost its distinctive voice. It also has forgotten that people come to church wanting and needing something quite different from the campaign speeches and ads they they’ve been hearing all week.” I agree wholeheartedly. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-10/stump-sermons .
I was often asked to run for political office, but I always refused because I felt like it would limit my freedom as a change agent. Throughout our nation’s history the pulpit has always been ahead of the ballot box. The Beecher family, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (who was the best preacher of the whole clan) were a decade ahead of Abraham Lincoln in forming the abolitionist movement. Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist Social Gospel preacher in Hell’s Kitchen, was a generation ahead of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching won the day for the Civil Rights movement, and Lyndon Johnson followed in his wake.
I will be glad when this election is over because we need to move on to more serious business. I am tired of a vision divided between red states and blue states, weary of candidates who think only in terms of black and white, but speak in shades of grey, while trying to convince us they are purple, when the color I really want is green. Political debate in the America is like the argument of an old married couple. Each side knows the others lines and once the argument begins it has logic of its own until it plays out. When tempers flared my Aunt Ike would head for the pantry and Uncle George for door, each shouting their last words. George would bang the door shut just as the first pot hit. Aunt Ike would clear the pantry, and he would stand outside singing at the top of lungs until she was done. That passes for political debate in America too.
Monday night’s Presidential debate on international affairs was like the conversation couples have after a big fight (like the second debate) where tough issues get avoided and swept under the rug, trying to seem reasonable. I kept thinking, “When will they talk about Global Climate change? What about the European debt issues? There was a little lip service to women’s development issues, but it is pointless unless contraception is readily available and women can control their own reproductive health.
Instead we were subjected to discussion who will keep us safe from Al Qaida? Which candidate can make the US military the most cost-effective killing machine. Oh, and jobs, jobs, jobs. I can’t wait till those jobs assembling IPhones come home, so my children can live in a dorm room with 5 other people, work 12 hours a day, for a subsistence wage.
We need to transform the conversation. Let’s get creative and redefine the parameters. This conversation is fearful and stunted. For example, there is a non-military way to confront Al Qaida. No one predicted the Arab Spring. Six month ahead of the Tunisian uprising I read one hedge fund manager saying that global climate change and drought conditions, was increasing commodity and food prices. He predicted that several governments would fall in countries where people lived near subsistence. Islamic nations border on the most arid climates in the world. Arab Spring was the tip of the melting iceberg, because these countries are most vulnerable to climate change. No amount of aircraft carriers or Predator drones are going to make the world safe when the problem is food insecurity and crushed aspirations. We need to proclaim the wise stewardship of God’s creation as the primary security to create peace and freedom from want.
Let’s also transform the conversation about women’s empowerment in the poorest and most populous nations. Subjugation of women keeps birthrates high and wastes human potential. Without sustainable birthrates, our planet’s resources will be overrun. Technology will not save us as we reach the frontiers of sustainability. Supporting women’s education and reproductive health freedom solves many problems at once. If you want to stop militant Islam in a generation, focus on women’s empowerment. I trust Islamic women to stop groups like Al-Qaida in its tracks, not the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. It will be a hard internal struggle much like women’s suffrage and equality has been in our own country, but I say put our policies and money behind Islamic women.
My first sermon hear on July 15 said that preaching needs to be a conversation between pastor and congregation. What we do on Sunday morning is a holy conversation where we all listen to God. My job is to be the discussion starter, and then listen carefully. This is not just an internal conversation. We need to change our community and global conversations about our future, and ensure sure God’s love and hope for the world plays a part. The church’s worldly role must stop defending our turf and invite people step on our grass, and maybe plant a few trees.
I want to celebrate efforts you are already making in this direction. Several people on the Peace and Justice Committee registered 90 people to vote. If even half of them vote, that is remarkable. If 300,000 churches across America did that, there would be 27 million more registered voters. Thanks for doing your part.
Last Wednesday, more than 50 people came to First Church’s Ballot Question #2 panel, and more than half the people were not from our congregation. The panel was excellent and afterwards people from all opinions thanked us for providing a forum, because the issue is being lost in the wider election din. Dr. Shaun Charest said afterwards this was the most enjoyable debate where he has spoken, because he did not feel under attack and enjoyed listening to the other side. Let’s recover the Congregational Meeting House tradition and make our sanctuary a safe place of respectable discourse. The congregational and Baptist church traditions are one of the last spaces where there is real grass roots democracy and problem solving. Let’s be experts at creating real dialogue, model it in our behavior together, and for the surrounding community.
We have 5 people going to Haiti this year. We raise support for people in Haiti and show our love and solidarity by raising money for schools and other things needed. But equally important, we need to hear the voices of God’s people in Haiti. What can they teach us about God’s love, and about how we need to live God’s people in global community? How will this mission experience change our conversation about being church?