Those of us who purport to proclaim the Word of the Lord, and to implant its principles in the lives of those who listen to us week after week, never need more in-the-moment discernment and wisdom than when we either deliberately depart, or carelessly wander, from the sacred text into the realm of political issues and personalities. Yet, there are occasions when such a rhetorical journey must be seriously considered.
It is somewhat like a football quarterback’s relationship with “the pocket.” There are times when a wise playmaker will find a way to scramble effectively to make an important play. But there are risks.
Preaching has played a positive role during many periods of unrest and transition in American history. From the Puritans, with their vision of a great “city on a hill,” to preachers who cried out against the ungodliness of slavery in the years before the Civil War, to members of the clergy who galvanized and energized the civil rights movement 50 years ago, voices have cried out in the wilderness of American politics for righteousness and justice.
In December 1955, a few days after Rosa Parks sparked the beginning of a constructive cultural flame by simply refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus, a small group of like-minded preachers called a mass meeting at a local church. They chose a young local pastor as their leader and spokesman—Martin Luther King Jr. His first assignment was to speak to a group assembled at that city’s Holt Street Baptist Church. He was excited about the opportunity, but had less than an hour to prepare. He later recalled what was on his mind as he gathered his thoughts and prepared his remarks:
“How could I make a speech that would be militant enough to keep my people aroused to positive action and yet moderate enough to keep this fervor within controllable and Christian bounds? I knew that many of the Negro people were victims of bitterness that could easily rise to flood proportions. What could I say to keep them courageous and prepared for positive action and yet devoid of hate and resentment? Could the militant and the moderate be combined in a single speech?”
King described one of the most important things a preacher should bear in mind when moving from a message rooted in the eternal and toward one focused on the temporal: Find the balance.
Preacher King faced his largest audience to date that evening. There were loudspeakers outside the church for hundreds who could not get inside to join the standing-room-only crowd. Using a device he would come to rely on so many times in his eloquent career, he savored a repeated phrase:
My friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. There comes a time…
Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) described preaching as “truth communicated through personality.” The main responsibility of the preacher is to proclaim the Word of God. Day in, day out—“in season, out of season.” But along the way, as Dr. King said, “there comes a time” when we face a compelling situation that begs for a perspective from the pulpit.
“There comes a time” when we cannot ignore the elephant—or the donkey—in the room.
Politics are in season right now. This poses a particular cluster of challenges for the preacher. The 19th-century German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck famously observed, “Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.” This analogy easily applies to partisan politics, as well. Mr. Smith will usually find himself disillusioned when he comes to Washington, just as the Apostle Paul’s spirit was “stirred” in Athens when he saw the once-great city’s ubiquitous idolatry.
During the waning days of World War I, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George remarked, “When the chariot of humanity gets stuck, nothing will lift it out of the mud better than great preaching that goes to the heart.” That observation from 1916 still resonates in 2016. The challenge for today’s American preacher is to find the balance between what cannot be ignored and what must always be said. There are several factors for the preacher to consider when discussing politics from the pulpit.
The GREAT Factor
Preaching the sacred text keeps us in the realm of the profound. Preaching anything else tempts us toward the realm of petty. Foundational to all effective preaching is the great commandment—to love God with all that we are and all that we have. This means that our hearts must always be focused on affection for the Lord Himself. Preaching is a form of worship, and we must have “no other gods” before us when we speak.
Flowing from the great commandment to love God completely is another: to love our neighbor. Our ultimate passion for God will inevitably lead to compassion for others. But to approach the horizontal without first focusing on the vertical is a slippery slope—one that takes the preacher and pulpit away from the proclamation of ultimate truth and reality, and toward the merely human.
There is a difference between preaching the gospel and having it come to bear on social issues, and preaching a purely social gospel. The latter focuses on love for neighbor at the expense of love for God. Or worse, the preacher begins to assume that love for neighbor is, in effect, love for God. The two are related—but they are not the same.
We must never lose sight of another vital priority: the Great Commission. Our Lord’s mandate was for us to be witnesses unto Him in the world. Centuries before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah forecast a great messianic forerunner. Ultimately fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist, this promised personality would emerge as a “voice crying in the wilderness.”
A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8 ESV)
The preaching that will impact politics the most will not be over-focused on issues and personalities, because they will ultimately wither and fade. Instead, a redoubled focus on the gospel itself is the only way to have an enduring influence.
At the close of the 18th century, western civilization was experiencing the turbulence of revolution. Our nation was born out of this travail. Other nations also struggled to cast off the old monarchial model for something more democratic. But have you ever wondered why the American Revolution and its European contemporary, the French Revolution, turned out so differently? While talking about “liberty, equality and fraternity,” the French wound up with terror and eventual despotism via Napoleon Bonaparte. He, by the way, provided the political DNA for infamous despots to come.
If America was born 240 years ago this year, the case can be made that she was conceived several decades earlier. Long before men named Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hancock and Franklin became notable and influential, there were a few preachers who meteorically blazed across the colonial sky. Men like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards preached the gospel with power.
And by the time the fires of revolution began to burn in the hearts of the colonists, those embers were tempered by the enduring effects of the Great Awakening. But France had no such awakening. And their experience was ancestor to all subsequent revolutions that have wreaked havoc on so many nations and the world.
The DISPOSITION Factor
Americans are angry. From the “tea party” on the right, to “occupy Wall Street” on the left, there is a pervasive spirit of discontent. But as Winston Churchill once observed, “anger can make a good starter, but it becomes a bad sticker.” In other words, while some constructive social change has been effectuated starting with anger, lasting change cannot be driven by human wrath.
The biblical writer James reminded us that “wrath of man” does not accomplish God’s purposes. One of the primary roles for the preacher in this political year is to be a voice of reason when surrounded by the unreasonable.
Anger is a gateway sin. Spiritual leaders are painfully aware of how the poisonous fruit of personal bitterness can destroy people and relationships. But are we fully aware of how even a small amount of political indignation—even when the issues feel justified—can spark a cultural firestorm? The scriptures talk about the power of the tongue to build up or tear down. Nowhere is this lingual potential more powerful than in the political realm.
When the Apostle Paul was urging members of the church at Philippi to learn how to get along, he called for “moderation” (Philippians 4:4). Our “moderation” (Greek, epieike, meaning gentle, fair-minded and reasonable) should be well known. And when our nation is inundated with vitriolic politic speech, we must contrast this with mega-doses of “sweet reasonableness.”
The COSMIC Factor
The Apostle John wrote about God’s love for the world: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 ESV)
He also wrote that followers of Jesus should not love the world:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (I John 2:15-17 ESV)
The first passage is a reminder about God’s great grace and mercy. The second passage is a warning about placing our trust in material and temporal things. The “world” is a planet. The “world” is humanity. And the “world” is also a sinful system. The earth may be orbiting the sun, but the world system is in a deadly trajectory moving away from God—what the Apostle Paul referred to as “the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2).
As preachers, we must never lose sight of the fact that drawing too close to the politics of the world system is a slippery slope. The Scriptures are filled with warnings about this: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?
Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4 ESV) Even when the times are urgent and the issues compelling, we must be careful because power is very seductive.
When I was a young pastor in the early 1980s, I attended a regional meeting of ministers in the state where I served. After the preaching and worship was done, we were asked to stay for a presentation. This was when the movement called the Moral Majority was at the peak of its influence. A young politico—armed with charts, graphs and obvious passion—laid out a strategy for organizing local chapters of the movement, with preachers occupying the top positions. It was quite impressive. The guy was an organizational whiz kid. But something he kept repeating bothered me: “And, Pastor, if you do this, you can become the most powerful man in your town.”
It was all very compelling, not to mention completely wrong.
When the Apostle Paul wrote his first epistle to Pastor Timothy, he minced no words reminding the younger preacher about the perils of loving money and seeking wealth. He even went so far as to insist that there was something about the love for material things that connected with all kinds of evil. The same can be said about the love of power—for wealth and power are flipsides of the same corrupt coin.
“I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession…” (I Timothy 6:13 ESV)
“Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’” (John 18:36 ESV)
The FIDDLER Factor
One of my favorite moments from The Fiddler on the Roof illustrates an interesting biblical idea related to our relationship with political people and processes:
Lebisch: Rabbi! May I ask you a question?
Rabbi: Certainly, Lebisch!
Lebisch: Is there a proper blessing… for the Tsar?
Rabbi: A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar … far away from us!
Preaching and politics tend toward the toxic when we fall prey to the idea that somehow political parties, powerful personalities and various changes in public policy can become sanctified delivery mechanisms for ultimate hope. Yes, “there comes a time” when we must speak up—and out. But we must never forget that our best efforts are spent using spiritual weapons.
Like Sean Connery’s mockery in the movie “The Untouchables,” about how dumb it was for an enemy to bring a knife to a gunfight, when we fail to show up in the church or marketplace of ideas with anything less than the Word of God, we will be ineffectual and frustrated.
Paul reminded Pastor Timothy that we must pray for leaders—all those in authority—but not because they are the most effective agents for cultural change. Instead he said that the focus and motivation for such “political” praying was “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (I Timothy 2:2 ESV) In other words, “May God bless and keep the Tsar … far away from us!”
The stubborn strongholds of this world—political or otherwise—cannot be effectively countered by merely human methods and power: “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” (II Corinthians 10:3-4 ESV)
It may be that 2016 is one of those moments when “there comes a time…” for preachers to step out of the pocket and scramble a bit, but we must never lose sight of the line of scrimmage, not to mention the ultimate glorious goal line.