Using “Too political” to silence people

I’ve seen it and heard it many times – often indirectly seeing and hearing arguments, and occasionally the argument is made directly to me because of something I’ve said or written.

It’s usually a complaint by someone who argues that a pastor or a church is being “too political” in what they are saying or proclaiming. It could be on any number of things – that’s the beauty of such an argument. It can be whipped out for any reason. Apparently there are those who think that a religious figure being labeled “too political” is a bad thing.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand about such an argument. Throwing the “Too political” label around at a religious figure or institution is really just an attempt to shut down conversation about an issue that the person doesn’t want to talk about. The person doesn’t want to face the reality that either what they are defending doesn’t match up with what their faith is about, or they are afraid of conflict and will do whatever it takes to shut down conversation rather than engage in talk in the pursuit of the truth.

I’ve never once heard someone who agrees with the stand of the church come up and criticize the church for taking a stand on something controversial by saying that the church was being “too political.” It’s only used to shut down any further conversation. It’s only used when someone disagrees with the stance.

But shutting down conversation over a controversial issue is not healthy. It doesn’t build or support unity. It doesn’t even maintain harmony or the absence of conflict. All it does is fester underneath the surface. It grows like a cancer – adherents are always on the look out, afraid of such conflict showing its face. They might have to deal with it in an unavoidable way.

Suppressing conflict and controversy doesn’t make it go away. Have we learned nothing from the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued churches? Suppressing conflict and controversy might allow us to put on the fake facade of pleasantness, but all it really does is maintain an unhealthy and uneasy status quo that isn’t working. It’s ignoring reality. It’s ignoring problems. It’s a privilege to be able to ignore things and pretend that you aren’t impacted.

Why should the person who wants to stop the discussion get more say than those who want to talk openly about an issue? I never understood that.

What are the things that are usually labeled as “too political” in churches? Issues that matter. They matter to people’s lives. They impact people’s lives – real people, with names, and stories. The “too political” label in churches have been what has kept far too many churches from dealing with abuses and exploitations, from dealing with unjust systems – too afraid of supposedly upsetting people who make up the membership and give money. Money talks after all. But if we’re too afraid to talk about things that matter because we are afraid that some folks may leave, that should say a lot about our churches and what we value. And what about the folks who aren’t a part of the community currently, but could find a home in our church communities because we are willing to talk about tough topics? Why are these folks dismissed?

Is it “too political” to talk about race and the history of racism within Christianity? Is it “too political” to talk about sexuality in church? How about stewardship of creation? Poverty? Greed? Money? Corruption? Justice?

If we eliminate all of these things, along with so many other uncomfortable topics, what is left? How to live your best life ever? Compared to what? You don’t need church at that point. You can get a self-help book for that. And church is no longer church either – it’s just a club. What’s the point?

Discipleship isn’t about avoiding controversy or avoiding being uncomfortable, or avoiding being “too political.” It’s facing these things head on. It’s risking the criticism. It’s speaking Good News in the midst of people who would rather avoid it because of how it might expose how we have benefited from injustice.

Prophets were considered “too political.” Yet they spoke. In our Gospel reading for this Sunday from Luke 13 we hear some Pharisees warn Jesus that King Herod is searching for him to kill him. Apparently, Jesus was being too political for Herod’s liking. Martyrs of all times and places became martyrs more often than not because they were “too political.”

“Too political” doesn’t actually mean something is too political. It usually means that the person claiming something is “too political” doesn’t want their politics to be shown to be incongruent with their faith. Better to shut down discussion, ignore the problems, pretend that everything and everyone is getting along. Better to ignore incongruence between faith and politics rather than explore them and have to adjust so that faith in integrated throughout one’s life. Better to avoid being vulnerable and being open to self-reflection, the need for forgiveness and the need for a savior outside of oneself. That kind of examination might cause a transformation of a person’s life. And if that happens, then they might embrace something else – that they aren’t in control of their life, other’s lives, or much of anything else either. They might recognize how broken they are. They might be open to a savior.

If we lean towards shutting down conversation because something is “too political” then we can go on believing that faith is just a compartment of our lives – something that can be taken out when we want to, and put away when it isn’t convenient. Something that doesn’t flow into other parts of our life. But faith flows through the entirety of life – if we get out of the way.

One last thing – I’ve said this many times before. Political and partisan are not the same thing. They are related to one another, but they are not the same thing. I think many times when people say a pastor or church is “too political” they actually mean what is being said or written is too partisan. But is it partisan to take a stand against injustice? Or is it political? I guess it depends on whether you are looking at the church through the lens of faith or partisanship. If your primary consideration is how does this help or harm the political party that I’m a member of, then you are prone to look at whatever is being done at too partisan. If your primary consideration is how does this relate to faith, then that’s different.

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