“Halftime”: Some Thoughts between the Conventions

Republicans down.

TP

Democrats to go.

clinton

As I write we are in-between the National Political Conventions. Last week the Republicans met in Cleveland to nominate their ticket of Trump/ Pence.  This week the Democrats will meet in Philadelphia to nominate their ticket of Clinton/Kaine.  And I hope that you’re watching.  For all of the hype and hoopla that these gatherings generate every four years, I still think that what happens at them matters for our country and the world.  So, I hope that you’re watching.

But it’s how you are watching the conventions that I am particularly thinking about here at halftime.

Partisans watch the doings partisanly. We just can’t help ourselves.  We’re tuned to Fox or MSNBC, depending on our proclivities, to mock or cheer, to revile or rejoice.  And we find ourselves predictably stirred or repulsed.  I know I am.  That, and some of us blog.  That’s what this thing is that you’re reading right now.  Blogs are where some of us publicly comment on public things regularly.  I do.  Descartes said that he knew that he was because he thought.   Well, bloggers know they are because we post.  But if you’ve read my comments here previously, especially on the topic of Faith and Politics, then you know that as a local church pastor I have some very real concerns about the partisanship of Christians, and especially ministers, both those to my right and those to my left.

A pastoral colleague and I were talking about this very thing the other day over coffee, and he told me that in his prior life, when he was a high school teacher, that he always knew that he had kept faith with his vocation as a shaper of young minds when his Republicanly-inclined students were absolutely convinced that he was one of them, while his Democratically-inclined students believed the exact opposite, just sure that he was one of them.

principleThis principled political neutrality stands in stark contrast to the string of preachers, pastors and religious leaders who stood on the stage in Cleveland last week confusing the Republican candidates, party and platform with the Kingdom of God, and to the string of preachers, pastors and religious leaders who will stand on the stage this week in Philadephia confusing the Democrat candidates, party and platform with the Kingdom of God.

A ministerial predecessor of mine in a previous congregation sold health supplements, synthetic oil and life insurance on the side. And congregants there often told me that when he walked up to their front door that they never knew what he was there to do.  Was he there to inquire after their souls, or to try to sell them something?  And I worry that a minister’s political passions and partisan postings have the potential to create this same sort of confusion.  I don’t want my vote for this or that candidate in the latest election (and I will vote) to obscure my life’s passion for Jesus Christ, and I don’t want there to be any confusion of my political leanings (and I ceratinly have some) with my higher commitment to the Kingdom.  And so in the interest of the Gospel I conscientiously choose to be circumpect about my political conclusions.  Of course, this raises the question of just exactly what is the Gospel doesn’t it?

Well, I believe that the Gospel is the message of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.  It’s about forgiveness, transformation and eternal life through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The concerns of humanitarinism and social justice are certainly not incidental to this Gospel, but I understand them to be the “fruit” and not the “root” of the Gospel, part of the good works that cannot save us, but that we are saved to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).  John Piper writes –

 William Wilberforce, who derived decades of persevering political labors of love from his joyful justified standing with God, argued in his book A Practical View of Christianity that all the immoral behavior of the nominal Christians of his age resulted from their mistaken conception of the fundamental principles of Christianity.

They consider not that Christianity is scheme “for justifying the ungodly” [Romans 4:5], by Christ’s dying for them “when yet sinners” [Romans 5:6-8], a scheme “for reconciling us to God—when enemies” [Romans 5:10]; and for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled.  

This error is especially common right now in our day. People, in order to create greater moral seriousness (especially with the radical commands of Jesus) are making morality part of the ground of justification.  But this backfires, because it destroys the joyful confidence which alone can bear the fruit of Christ-exalting love. It takes away the one and only ground and source of the very transformation they long for.

Get this wrong, oscure it or reverse it, and then I believe that the Gospel is put at risk. And I fear that  this is what happens when preachers talk more, or as much, or as enthusiastically about Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein, as they do about Jesus Christ.

hoodA while back the Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood posted a blog entry at his web page (http://revjeffhood.com) that I found absolutely compelling. I’ve referenced this posting before. As I wrote the first time – I suspect that Jeff and I would find much to disagree about if we ever sat down together over a cup of coffee as brothers in Christ, but on this I couldn’t be more in agreement with him –

In 2008, I got excited about Barack Obama. I bought the shirt, hat and bumper sticker. I was two years past my ordination as pastor. Early one Saturday morning, I’ll never forget sitting down with a cherished mentor. As I proudly wore my Obama shirt, my mentor leaned in and said, “How are you going to demand that Obama not bomb some poor nation after you have run around with his shirt on? How are you going to minister to those who hate Obama after they see you with that shirt on? True pastors don’t endorse candidates!” I believed her then. After seeing President Obama violate my Christian conscience by bombing countless nations and watching our nation become as polarized as I’ve ever seen it, I believe her more now. … I don’t remember Jesus ever endorsing any candidates. I think he was smart enough to know that an endorsement limits your ability to speak prophetically to whoever is elected and limits your ability to minister to the whole populace after the election.

Theologically, this is exactly the position that the German Lutheran Preacher/Teacher Helmut Thielicke (1908 –1986) argued in his book on “Politics” in his Theological Ethics series.

headWhile the preaching of the church may speak to general situations [political, social and economic], it can only sketch the themes of the special situtations and of the decisions which they demand. The preaching of the church cannot be specific in the sense of making decisions for the individual and in his stead… The church can speak speak about an election as such. It can show how the duty of voting derives from the character of the state as a theological fact.  It can even discuss particular Christian concerns (social, educational and others).  But normally the church cannot tell the individual how to vote… The church stands above the political parties, providing pastoral care to all members irrespective of their various party affiliations… (620)

Early in my ministry a trusted mentor told me that it wasn’t my job to tell people what to think, but rather to help them to be able to think. And for him this meant helping to resource people’s conversations, considerations and consciences with the best possible information available.  When it came to Politics, my friend told me that he saw himself as the spiritual equivalent to the League of Women’s Voters.  Just like them, my friend told me that it was none of his buisness how his people actually voted, but it was his business to make sure that they did vote, and that their votes were well-informed.  Of course, it’s so much easier just to tell people what you think.  It’s easier to just amass talking points and to adopt debate tactics.  It’s easier to launch rhetorical broadsides and to try to win the argument.  But there’s so much more to all of this than just that.

“Spirtual Formation” is the new term that people are using for Christian education, and I really like this way of thinking and talking about matters of faith and values, and how they’re nurtured in us. There is no shortcut to spiritual formation.  Formation speaks of a process that matters at least as much as the outcome.  And so, for all of the spin and soundbites, for all of the marketing and mudslinging, for all of the the punditry and posturing at the Conventions, it’s still part of the only process we have for  getting at the truth of things, and getting at that truth is our assignment if being informed is our goal.  So, we’ve got to put in the work, and that means watching closely, listening carefully, thinking critically and deciding conscientiously.

godI read Mark Devers book God and Politics last week.  In it he quoted King David’s last prayer in 2 Samuel 23:1-4 as a statement of what it is that we are all hoping for when the next President of the United States gets inaugurated on January 20, 2017.

The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me – “When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.”

When I cast my vote for President on November 8, 2016, it will be for the person I have decided from among the alternatives is the one who is most likely to be like the morning breaking, the sun shining and the life-giving rain falling for our nation at this moment in time. To that end, I plan on paying attention now, and I urge you to, too.  DBS +

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