Let’s get right to the heart of it. I’m willing to bet most pastors have heard this statement uttered towards them at some point in their pastorate. Probably after a really difficult sermon on a difficult topic. Most likely on a passage of Scripture that they would have preferred to not have to preach on because they knew it would be met with criticism.
What does the statement “you’re being too political…” really mean though? It can mean a few things. Most of the time what the person really means is “you’re being too partisan” as in you sound like the talking points I’m imagining I would hear from the opposing partisan political party that I’m registered in and I don’t like it. And the core challenge behind this is a belief by the person that God would clearly be registered in the same partisan political party as they are and have the same core ideological beliefs as they do. How dare you suggest that there might be a difference.
“You’re being too political…” only gets lobbed at the pastor though in one direction. I’m not talking about from an ideological perspective. That would be too simplistic. I’m willing to bet that pastors heard that they were being “too political” when they preached against slavery before the Civil War in America. And that’s before the current two political parties existed. I’m willing to bet pastors have heard this in other times and places as well. Which gets to a deeper meaning about the statement.
“You’re being too political…” is really about something else. It’s a statement about where people are in a system and who benefits from maintaining a system as it is. It’s a statement designed to stop a change in a system, or rather to stop any critique of a system, or even expose any truth on any system for what it might actually be about. It’s a statement based on fear – fear of exposure, fear of loss. It’s a statement that doesn’t want to engage in the truth because that might mean change and transformation. It might mean acknowledgment of wrong and sin. It might mean the need for reparation. It might mean a whole host of things. And that could be very painful. It’s a statement of protection.
For example, let’s do an experiment. Who do you imagine would utter the phrase “pastor, you’re being too political…”? In a sermon that critiques slavery before the Civil War, who would be more likely to utter the phrase? Would an enslaved person? How about a poor white yeoman working in the South? How about freed black man in the North? How about a slave owner? Seems pretty obvious doesn’t it? There’s only one person on that list who has any incentive to stop the light of truth from being exposed on the system of slavery.
I’m currently reading “The Holy No: Worship as a Subversive Act” by Adam Hearlson. It was written in 2018 and is very timely. I think this book takes on the “you’re being too political” phrase head on. And it does it in a way that brings us back to the roots of what worship and faith is really all about.
“To worship is to commit to changing the world, not simply as a result of worship, but as an act of worship. Christian worship is not passive, it is deeply interested and because it is interested, it is political. Christian worship is the political act of initiating change. It is the act of saying NO to the current circumstances while also imagining and building a world that reflects God’s promises.” (pg. 10)
In other words, worship is a subversive act. Yes, you heard that correctly. Which may be shocking for some to hear. How could Christian worship be subversive? Especially in a nation that claims to be mostly Christian? Why would Christians want their worship to be subversive in a supposedly Christian nation?
“The goal of subversion is to pull back the curtain and reveal ‘the normal’ as created and maintained. Subversion shows everyone that there is no ‘proper’ way to act and that every practice and perception is historically conditioned. The goal of subversion is to change the world by exposing and disrupting the actions, practices, and symbols that are designed to reproduce the dominant culture. This is what change is: ‘Change is failed reproduction.'” (Pg. 12-3)
This gets at the heart of it. And it gets at the heart of our vision and how we see things. Is our culture the already established kingdom of God or not? If it is, then there is no need for subversion because we already have God’s kingdom in place and we only need to protect what already exists. If it isn’t, then there is work that needs to be done.
Given that we have mass shootings that happen with regularity and aren’t even shocking any more, are we already living in the established kingdom of God? Is this what it means to be living in the Kingdom of God? Or does it make more sense to pull back the curtain and reveal “the normal” and attempt to disrupt the actions, practices, and symbols that are designed to reproduce the dominant culture?
That’s just one example. How about how we treat LGBTQ+ people? Or the poor? Or those experiencing homelessness? Or how we deal with violence? Or mental illness? Or practices regarding the stewardship of the earth? Or excess wealth? Or how we treat others verbally that we disagree with? Or racism? Or sexism? Or how we do medical care? Or how we deal with our own history as a nation? Or whole host other things that could easily make the list.
Look, the point of this isn’t to say that America is bad as if there are only two options and you are either one or the other, all in – Good/bad. That’s far too simplistic. Yes, I know there are plenty of people who operate in this mode of thinking. And I know this post isn’t going to reach them. So be it. I pray that at some point that they might expand their minds and hearts to complexity and seeing a fuller spectrum of life.
The point is to talk about what the purpose of the church is.
“The church exists only as it participates in the trinitarian mission of God to free people from the bondage that destroys relationships and mutuality in this world.” (Pg. 24).
“The church is more itself when it mirrors the persons of God and fosters relationships with people who look, act, sound, and believe differently.” (Pg. 25).
This means “Pastor, you’re being too political…” is the antithesis of what it means to be church.