“An excellent reflection. The real issue is: HOW?”

Human rightsThis was a comment on my last blog about speaking to the issues raised by the character and actions of President Trump. In that blog I explained that I am cautious about stepping into the political fray publicly, but that some of President Trump’s actions had finally crossed a line for me where silence seemed to carry more risks than speaking a prophetic word.

My reader’s comment pushed me to take the next natural step—to go from naming the need to speak publicly in our churches to the actual HOW. I will admit that I am often reluctant to get too specific about the “hows” of things. We have a large and diverse presbytery and what works for one congregation often doesn’t work for another congregation. That, coupled with the fact that we have gifted church leaders all through this presbytery, I tend to like to articulate the issues that are facing us and leave the creative implementation to our local congregations.

But this is one area where teasing out the HOW could be important. It is such a sensitive and potentially controversial subject that many church leaders likely want to address this issue, but don’t know HOW.

  • HOW to do it with sensitivity for the diversity of their congregations?
  • HOW to do it without jeopardizing the church’s non-profit status?
  • HOW to do it in a way that brings a congregation closer together rather than to tear them apart?

How, how, how…

Safe hereThe essential question for me is, “How does one create a safe environment to talk about things that matter?” That, at its heart, is what my last post was about. Not opposing President Trump himself, but saying, “We in the church have to be able to talk about things that matter,” and President Trump is having a deep impact on our relationships, our parenting, our communities and our nation. This stuff matters!

We often hear people say, “In our family the one thing we don’t talk about is religion and politics.” Why is that? Because religion and politics are two of the areas of our lives that are closest to our hearts. They are the areas that really matter and we don’t like to take the risk that the people closest to us might reject us for what we believe.

Of course, there is a problem with that approach. It means that our relationships are based on a version of us that is not our deepest, most authentic self. “I want to be accepted, so I won’t share my real self.” “I want to be liked, so I will only share the parts I think people will like.” You can see the fallacy of such approaches. How do we know we are really accepted if we haven’t even shared who we really are.

Silence and tapeThis is one of the reasons that I wrote that we had reached “a prophetic fork in the road.” The more controversial our political environment has become, the more we have been tempted toward neutrality and silence, and the less our church relationships are based on our most authentic real selves. What we really feel is either limited to those who think like us or is kept to ourselves only. And our congregations eventually learn to stay together through avoidance rather than honest engagement. Not a good reflection of the body of Christ.

The question for me is, “How does one create a safe environment to talk about things that matter?” In this case—the relationship between faith and politics.

So here are some actual HOWs:

  1. First, start building a reputation for yourself as “the church that cares about community issues.”
    1. Host community forums where city council members and community leaders can hear from their constituency.
    2. Invite a panel of experts on important issues like immigration, just war theory, “Medicare for all,” affordable housing, gentrification, homelessness, racism, etc.
    3. Host community forums during election cycles where the community can hear from candidates from all parties.
    4. Host a Better Angels event at your church to practice how to talk to each other across the political divide. Our own, the Rev. Cynthia O’Brien, works with them now.
  2. Reinforce that dialogue is more important than agreement.
    1. Try a few dialogue sermons in your congregation where the preacher sets the context and then facilitates the message rather than preaches the message;
    2. Schedule regular “Sermon Talk Backs” after the service where members can engage with the preacher and with each other on the content of the sermon;
  3. Do an adult study or a preaching series on scripture texts that address the relationship between faith and politics, church and state:
    1. Romans 13: 1-7
    2. Acts 5: 29
    3. 1 Peter 2: 13-17
    4. Matthew 22: 21
    5. John 19: 10-11
  4. Do a book study with one of the following three books:
    1. Dare We Speak of Hope: Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics by Allan Aubrey Boesak;
    2. Progressive Christians Speak: A Different Voice in Faith and Politics by John B. Cobb, Jr.;
    3. The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America by Jim Wallis

How do we address this prophetic fork in the road in which we find ourselves? We nurture environments where we can talk about the things that matter. And we trust that the Christ who unites us is stronger than the beliefs that differentiate us.

We live in a precarious and dangerous time. Silence is not the answer. Someone we know once said, “Speak the truth in love.”

Speaking and loving.

Now that is the Presbyterian way.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

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