A Pastoral Message For Our Churches During These Extraordinary Days

As a Simon and Garfunkel fan, one of my all-time favorites is “The Dangling Conversation”, written by the gifted composer Paul Simon in 1966. The theme of the beautiful lyrics is about failed communication between two lovers. The first verse is descriptively powerful:

It’s a still life water color,
of a now late afternoon,
As the sun shines through the curtained lace
And shadows wash the room.
And we sit and drink our coffee
Couched in our indifference,
Like shells upon the shore
You can hear the ocean roar
In the dangling conversation
and the superficial sighs,
The borders of our lives.

The message of the song is clear - indifference leads to failed communication, and renders it as mere “superficial sighs.” Sincere civic debate and constructive conversation around the common good in our political life is hardly possible now in our day and time, and indifference is not the only cause. There is a malignant toxicity that has infected our public discourse.

We now find ourselves living in a hyper-partisan, ideologically polarized, and adversarial discursive political environment where objective facts (e.g., that the sun always rises in the east) no longer determine the validity of truth claims. It is a time when it seems that a malignant ideological tribalism has spread in our public life where differences in perspectives or opinions have constructed an ideological arena where the rules of discourse is zero-sum: which means, in Game Theory, that whatever is gained by one side is - and must be - lost by the other.

This toxic conversational environment now permeates every level of discourse in our society. As an avid student of politics and a curious social observer, I find myself in these days making intentional efforts each day when I wake up to stay centered and grounded so that I do not unwittingly allow myself to get unmoored and be forcibly drawn into the vortex of this centrifugal counterfeit discourse that steals life of its inner harmony and beautiful complexity.

As a regional pastor, that concern extends much deeper and broader than my own individual commitment to stay grounded and centered. My concern extends to the churches and pastors in our regional family who I am privileged to serve. And because we must yet live out our faith in the public sphere, I am profoundly concerned with the state of the testimony of the church in public life. I am concerned for our faith community because the infectiousness of this hyper-partisan and politically polarized environment has also permeated the discourse of the church. And herein lies the danger. The church is the embodiment of Jesus in the world, in the same way that Jesus of Nazareth was the embodiment of God on earth. It is from this theological bedrock profession that my abiding concern for the faithful voice of our churches emanates - that its voice might remain grounded and centered in the crucified Jesus and the risen Christ during these extraordinary days.

So how do we as churches remain centered in the cruciform Christ who has ushered in the reign of God’s kingdom of love?

Chapel of the Holy Cross - Sedona, AZ

Chapel of the Holy Cross - Sedona, AZ

A foundational scriptural basis for the practice and ethic of the follower of Jesus during this extraordinarily toxic season of public life is found in Matthew 22: 15-21, where the Pharisees and the Herodians (who were religious collaborators of the empire) tried to trap Jesus into revealing his loyalty to the Emperor (Caesar) by luring him to disclose his “political” affiliation. Instead, Jesus used the encounter to expose their ultimate allegiance and the fallacy of their religiosity. The rebuke to “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s; and to God the things that are God’s”, was to say that all earthly kingdoms no longer hold absolute sway in our hearts and souls, and that our ultimate allegiance is no longer adjudicated by which ideology wins the contest for power. God’s kingdom is now in our midst, embodied in the life of Jesus, and all forms of earthly power now live under the scrutiny of God’s reign of love in the world. Yes, as followers of Jesus we must have a sound and healthy Christian political theology that is grounded in the cruciform Christ, and not - even never - conflated with any other earthly ideology.

Politics always seeks to reproduce its own preferred social relations that favor its hold on power. In that pursuit, politics also cannot help but conceal its contradictions. These concealed contradictions disclose themselves in the course of a contested and partisan competition for power. For example, politicians like to advertise themselves as the most non-political candidate but, alas, are campaigning for such a political position; they compete for the most compelling argument of how they dislike politics but, alas, a position which they now covet; they claim to speak "for the people", but in actuality espouse only the interests of a their own supporters; they so readily conflate their faith with their politics to burnish their “moral” credentials, but be the first to tell religion to stay out of politics when religion becomes critical of it; a candidate seeks a moral equivalence with the wrongs of an opponent’s past in order to justify one’s wrongs being committed in the present - and the list of contradictions go on and on. Many church leaders and pastors have even gone on to lend their support of this or that candidate as a mandate of their faith, conveniently ignoring some of their own strongly held beliefs that they otherwise would have used to judge others, in order to justify the moral and ethical shortcomings of their partisan choice. But what is ultimately concealed is what lies at the core of this sociopolitical contest - the will to power.

As one who instinctively views circumstances through theological eyes, I am especially discerning and vigilant during a season of ideological warfare, that I don’t get pulled into the vortex of the centrifugal force that fuels counterfeit discourse. Jesus spoke of “truth” many times. In John’s gospel in particular, chapter 8: 31-32 - understanding that Greek was the language in which the New Testament was written - Jesus is heard saying to those who believed in him, “...and you will know the truth, and the truth will will make you free.” (NRSV)

Open Sea

Open Sea

In the Greek, the word from whence “truth” is translated is “aletheia” - literally, the “absence of walls.” So what does Jesus mean about knowing the “truth” that sets free? What does this place - where walls are absent and “unconcealed” - look like, and where the very essence of being alive and human is not hidden? Is there such a place? Consider the antecedent to Jesus’ statement, which qualifies what "knowing the truth" entails: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples...” The truth that Jesus speaks about is not knowledge in general but redemptive, saving truth rooted in obedience to the concrete ethical demands of his teachings and instructions. In submitting ourselves to the practice and appropriation of his ethical demands through obedience, our lives are thrust into the possibility of entering the presence and reign of God on earth and, in that and through that, we are made free. And wherever God is present, truth, “aletheia” inhabits and indwells. The gospel proclaims that in Jesus “The fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

As followers of Jesus we know to what end God uses power. We know to what end Jesus used his authority. Our tasks as citizens is to discern how earthly politics use their power. To what end? Do they use it only to perpetuate their hold on power and dominion? Do they use their power for the common good? As followers of Jesus, our path is clear, it is not ambiguous. Our path is led not by the gods of Herodians, but by the cruciform Christ. As followers of Jesus, the moral voice we hear has an unmistakable timbre. It is not garbled.

The gospel proclamation is not neutral. Its proclamation is grounded in a God whose very nature is love. And that love issues forth in an indefatigable holy desire to protect the poor, the suffering and the oppressed. And so Jesus’ social vision is unequivocally articulated in concrete political terms at the beginning of his ministry in Luke chapter 4. And while the realization of that vision is ultimately eschatological, it lays out the political agenda of Jesus and the kingdom. God is a God of liberation, who chose to disclose the divine intention in history through liberating a slave people and calling them to be a “light unto the nations”, and through an only Son who revealed God’s presence in the radical and extravagant exercise of agape. To the degree that human institutions participate in this agenda, they enter the astonishing possibility of being in the presence God’s very reign on earth and participate in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work of love in the world.

The church’s voice cannot be indifferent; and if the way it communicates in society makes its voice disappear and become indistinguishable in the morass of our toxic political climate, then its voice has utterly failed. It is in the obedient practice of the teachings of Jesus that we are set free, and it is in that practice that God’s presence is disclosed. We need to center our discourse and our conversation in God’s reign as disclosed in the life and teachings of Jesus. When the church and the followers of Jesus discipline themselves to stay centered in God, their proclamation always lead others to enter God’s presence that is already at work in our midst. Any other voice that infuses these days with more disconnective energy, and draws our ultimate allegiances into its contradictions, is just dangling conversation and counterfeit discourse.

I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have overcome the world!
— John 16: 33 (NRSV)