A Capital Faith - Allen V. Harris

I guess it would be natural for my first blog post to be about politics since we are in the thick of the election season in the United States and I live within a mile of a national capital city.  But I think I would want to talk about politics anyway as part of my call to be the Regional Minister of the Christian Church Capital Area is to help our Region as well as the entire Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ) to understand, integrate, and live out a public faith as well as a personal faith.

I say this because of two things.  First, as I referenced above, our Region encompasses one of the two national capitals that make up our denomination (which includes both Canada and the United States).  Second, but just as important, is the fact that we host three social justice organizations of our faith: the Disciples Center For Public Witness, under the director of the Rev. Ken Brooker Langston, the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative, led by the Rev. Sekinah Hamlin, and the Disciples Refugee And Immigration Ministry, whose director is the Rev. Sharon Stanley Rea.  Having a good and healthy working relationship with these organizations and leaders was part of my job description as Regional Minister and fulfills a portion of my calling as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:16-21 amongst many others).

Perhaps I am also attuned to the theme of faith and politics because of a recent string of posts on a clergy friend’s Facebook page that was not only civil, but thoughtful and engaging!  (Yes, this is still possible!  LOL!)  In this post, which was begun (I suspect) after witnessing not one but two Disciples Of Christ clergypersons speak at the Democratic National Convention (when has THAT ever happened before?!?!)  The initiator of this post pondered what it meant for clergy to be so closely aligned to one of the other political party (at least on social media).  But he also noted the “disconnect” between clergy and their congregations.  This wasn’t explained much, at least in the initial post, but as it parsed out amongst the responders it was noted that clergy were seen as being more progressive/liberal/outspoken and congregational members being more conventional/conservative/reserved in their political leanings.

Let me be clear, and I have researched this carefully, I am quite committed to and abide strictly by the legal guidelines (https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/charities-churches-and-educational-organizations-political-campaign-intervention) that all churches and religious institution that have tax-exempt status must refrain completely in engaging in supporting a political candidate in any way or influencing the election of a candidate.  I support and promote this critical injunction.  But one of the things I have noticed is that all too often this ban, often lumped in most people’s mind under the “separation of church and state” language of the Bill Of Rights, has been used to silence communities of faith from speaking out on important issues of the day (issues are very different from candidates in the legal world) as well as to silence clergy in our private lives. 

What I have found is that this leaves religious leaders and congregations with the most extreme views on politics the room to claim a voice louder and more ubiquitous impact than their size warrants because a vacuum is made by the absence of moderate voices of faith nearer the middle.

And I am well aware this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the more strident and vitriolic the public debate becomes because these extreme voices take fuller advantage of the subtle nuances of the law the less and less those persons who have other/more thoughtful views want to participate in that debate at all!  But my point is that this is EXACTLY why churches and clergy who are not on the edges of any issue ought to be involved in the discussion.  Our voices of faith need to be heard just as much (dare I say more?) than the extremists! (Matthew 25:31-46)

Alongside this need for the public conversation about important issues of our day is the painful awareness that often clergy refrain from taking any political stand (or supporting political candidates in their own private time, which is legally guaranteed) and self-limit anything that might even remotely appear to be political for fear of crossing the line inadvertently.  Additionally, many clergy feel that by taking any stand for or against a candidate or a ballot measure or legislative issue they would be alienating members of their flock who feel differently.

I take these concerns very, very seriously.  I have been a local church pastor for over 25 years and pastoral care has been at the heart of every moment of my ministry.  And it is exactly for this very reason that I have become more and more comfortable – no, empowered – to be a fully political human being in my private life.  For far, far too long the image of pastor has been misshapenned to portray an unrealistic and inhuman being.  And this isn’t just about politics, it’s also about sexuality, finances, mental health, and really every facet of what it means to be human.  The more we intentionally dampen, hide, refrain from those things that make us fully human in order to not offend or distance ourselves from our parishioners, the more we risk offending and distancing ourselves from our parishioners.  The less real, the less human, the less honest we are about our lives, the less relevant we become to people who want to be real.

My image of ministry was utterly transformed by my participation in the play, “The Runner Stumbles,” by Milan Stitt (later made into a movies) in which a renegade Catholic nun is exiled to a tiny parish in northern Michigan, where she finds (and falls in love with) a priest who was sent there years before to be “broken in.”  In this story the horrific weight of religious leaders who attempted to bend and limit their own humanity in order to not offend those whom they serve plays out with tragic consequences. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Runner_Stumbles#Original_play)

So, I work diligently to be real and authentically human, which, in my case, means being quite political in my personal life.  Am I careful to keep my politics on my own Facebook wall and Twitter feed, and share them on my own time and not on those social media sites I administer for my ministry?  Of course, although I understand not everyone will understand or honor this distinction.  Do I work hard to make space and time to be in dialogue with others who have different perspectives than mine?  Yes, of course!  All I ask is that others abide by the standards of respect, decency, and good listening, as will I try.  But in the traditions of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures speaking out to the excesses and injustices of both foreign and homeland rulers, and Jesus as he stood up to and spoke out against the travesties of the Roman Empire and those of his own religious leaders who collaborated with the empire’s cruelty and injustice, so I will speak out as faith-fully as I can.

My hope is that the more real I and other pastors become to our parishioners, and the more our world sees clergy being thoughtfully, carefully, and thoroughly honest about our commitments, passions, and politics, the more we will understand that it is discerning dialogue, prayerful reflection, open discussion, and a commitment to staying at the table to learn from one another and grow from each other’s wisdom that is most important, not silencing nor overwhelming each other’s views.  In this way, we can live out the ideal of our Disciples founders who believed in a “faith seeking understanding.” 

And in that spirit, I invite your response and thoughts on this!

Abundantly Yours,