By Bill Mefford
I am an organizer and activist and I spend my life mobilizing the Church to faithfully engage in the political realm as a means of carrying out God's missional love and justice for the world. I fully believe every single person who follows Jesus is called to redemptively utilize our access to resources to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access is restricted or denied. This is the heart of biblical advocacy and when done from a position of incarnational relationships among those directly impacted by injustice, there is nothing more biblical, more faithful, more worshipful, or more just. This is the heart of the gospel.
It is because of this – not in spite of it, that I desperately want pastors to refrain from making anymore sermons on politics. Of course, there are a number of reasons for this.
One is I am not a big fan of sermons in the first place. Sermons tend to be the most passive and spectator-oriented part of worship for Christians. Only one person is speaking (at least in most white churches) while everyone else is more than likely tuned out for at least a portion of the sermon if not the entire thing. In a day when information is shared at a lightening pace the traditional, long-winded sermon is certainly nostalgic, remembering days gone by when people walked to their neighborhood church or sat and talked during coffee hour before they filed into the sanctuary to hear their pastor hold forth on the mysteries of the Scriptures and the topics of the day. But those days are long gone and increasingly, long sermon formats are ineffective at transforming peoples’ deepest longings and yearnings, their hopes and fears; their worldview.
Another reason why pastors should refrain from political sermons is that most seminaries literally suck at teaching what politics is and how Christians should engage. I can only speak for my own seminary experience and I can honestly say I left seminary ill-equipped to talk theologically or biblically, much less lead a missiological engagement of a congregation in the political realm. In a globalized world where the actions of those especially in the most affluent and powerful nation on earth can and often do have immense deleterious impacts on those in the global South it is sinful that redemptive political engagement is not a subject of higher concern and framed as an essential aspect of the missional work of the Church as we train church leaders.
But having served churches and, more importantly, having attended church for decades now, I can safely say that political engagement is one of the least understood subjects in all the church. It is either used by those who desire a triumphalistic return of Christendom or it is ignored altogether. Considering the harm we can cause others through our sloppy engagement in this realm I suggest a total moratorium on political sermons.
This is why I am saying this now. This past Sunday I went to a church where the pastor attempted to preach on the current state of the election. It did not start off well when the worship leader began the service saying, “if you know anything about this church you know that we don’t do politics…but this week, we are going to talk…oh well, let’s just worship.” The discomfort of discussing this issue was clear.
Unfortunately, there was even less clarity as to what politics is and how we as followers of Jesus should engage when it came time for the sermon. It wasn’t a bad sermon; just sloppy and inarticulate. It began with a critique on how political campaigns try to present candidates as messianic saviors rather than as normal people running for office. There is certainly truth to this sentiment and in the current context donald trump has made no bones about the fact that he views himself as the only person in the country capable of fixing problems. But the sermon moved straight from this critique into how our faith and hope must be put in Jesus and not in candidates; Jesus alone can save us and lead us.
OK, I don’t have a problem with that statement, but without speaking to the most faithful and effective way for us as recipients of Jesus’ salvation and leading to engage politically, it left me with the clear inference that all that matters is Jesus and politics is something that is mostly just a nuisance and should be extraneous in our lives. The danger in this is that since our political choices have enormous impact especially on the most vulnerable in this country and in many other countries our political engagement should be seen as a central part of our faithful response to love our neighbor, which, as Jesus reminded us, is as important as loving God. The sermon failed tragically on that point, but most of them do.
However, evangelicals are not the only ones I hope will refrain from political sermons. Last week I was in Charlotte on Wednesday night, the second night of the protests following the murder of Keith Scott. I went downtown to stand with the protesters. It was a beautiful night and when I got to Marshall Park where the protesters were gathering I stood off to the side just to watch and take it all in, before I walked through the crowd for the two hours I was there. I was honestly fascinated by what I observed.
Protests can be beautiful to watch. They are like watching democracy develop organically. All throughout the crowd there were groups of people sharing their thoughts and ideas in passionate conversations about everything from police brutality to economic development in Black communities. But I also noticed something disturbing. I saw a bunch of old, white guys with neon orange vests on who were walking around, trying to talk with people. As I got closer I saw that they were with Billy Graham Ministries and they were trying to pray with folks. I heard later on the news that they do this regularly at all community-wide events as they use these occasions to evangelize people. I am not sure I have seen something so odious than white men attempting to evangelize young African Americans as they gathered to protest an innately racist social order predicated on white male control and the intentional marginalization of Black males.
Still, at least the Billy Graham white guys were willing to talk with the predominantly Black crowd that had gathered. I also saw small groups of white clergy, easily identifiable because they were wearing long stoles and also because they were all grouped together, talking with one another. As I walked by them occasionally I could hear them talking about their churches and it was clear that most were from mainline denominations. Ahhh, liberals. There were one or two exceptions, but most of the white clergy I saw never interacted with the protesters; just one another. They were present and I know that is important, but I could not help but think that their lack of engagement with the protesters was due to the fact that though they sympathized with the cause there was a lack of any established relationships between them and the African American community. I know, I am just guessing, but my guessing is based on years of having seen this same kind of scenario all too many times.
When I left the protest I was inspired. Despite the media’s fascination with the violence of a very few people, the protests on that night and in the subsequent nights have almost entirely been peaceful. They truly have been inspiring events – people who daily face the possibility of being gunned down for holding their hands in the air, for complying with police demands, or for no reason at all, are still choosing to not cower in fear. They are standing together and standing strong. Man, you just can’t help but be inspired by that stuff.
But I also left the protest Wednesday night saddened because whether they were evangelical or liberal, the white Christians I saw were mere spectators like me, yet they were in their hometown. They were engaging in ways that were self-serving and ineffective.
Between the white religious people at the protests last week or the sermon I heard this past Sunday, far too many White Christians are missing the most important aspect for understanding or entering into any kind of faithful political engagement: relationships. Far more than theological or ideological leanings, relationships with people most directly impacted by injustice are the heart and soul of all justice work. There is nothing more important. Nothing.
And until our church leaders are incarnated among those directly impacted by injustice, please no more political sermons. It’s just more unwelcome noise. And with donald trump around these days, who the hell needs more of that?