The palms waved us into Holy Week just last Sunday and we’re already well along into the events of this week, the final chapter of Jesus’ life. Since Christmas we’ve been hearing again stories of the life and ministry of Jesus: teaching in the temple, healing the sick, preaching sermons about loving our enemies, and speaking for people who couldn’t speak for themselves.
Jesus has fed a bunch of people, invited outsiders to sit at his table, and made his way around Galilee becoming increasingly irritating to the temple leaders and Roman government representatives.
But as much as we’d like to paint the life and ministry of Jesus with a gold-toned patina and relegate it to the felt board in the children’s Sunday school classroom, we can’t get very far into the life of Jesus or its culmination in this week without realizing pretty quickly that while Jesus’ message was theological, his life and ministry made the implications of his message deeply political.
That truth is a bit uncomfortable — especially if you’re a Baptist, like me. After all, if there’s anybody known to champion the separation of church and state, it’s us Baptists. Even a cursory study of Baptist history will show that Baptists made significant contributions to insuring that our country did not and cannot become a theocracy, wisely aware that majority populations and belief systems shift with the changing times and the best way to make sure we are free to practice faith as our consciences dictate is to make sure that everybody is free to practice their faith as their consciences dictate.
All of that is awesome and important, a banner to cling to, desperately, in the decades since the First Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, decades during which we Baptists have distinguished ourselves by other issues: fighting to preserve slavery, excluding women, co-opting other cultures in the name of evangelism, preaching a message of hatred toward LGBTQ folks, and other proud reputation-builders of that nature.
The separation of church and state has become a rare point of pride, or at least legitimacy, for some of us insistent we will remain Baptists. But it also has tripped us up at times — especially those times when it’s imperative that the pastor step into the pulpit and talk frankly about the political implications of the gospel message. I think it trips up even pastors who aren’t Baptists. Because we’re often scared, we end up leaving political matters at home on Sunday mornings and settling into our safe pulpits as if what’s read and preached to the pews has no relation to the issues swirling around just outside the church walls.
Sadly, that interpretation of a healthy separation of church and state is a perversion of the idea’s intent. Here’s what we’ve got to protect: the government doesn’t make laws restricting the free practice of religion. And religious groups speak to issues, not candidates, calling people and government and society to a standard of love and equality reflected in Jesus’ message.
I think it’s awfully hard to profess faith in Jesus Christ and not speak from the pulpit on the issues of our day, issues around which Jesus was passionate: inclusion, equality, justice, and peace; making room for the least among us and welcoming the stranger; extending the reach of our communities to include those who can’t survive on their own. The crisis in our country now is undeniable.
Benedictine Joan Chittister speaks of our country today in this way : “[T]his is the same Jerusalem over which Jesus wept. This is the great society that has forgotten the widow and the orphan, that enthrones the Pharisee and stones the prophets, that speaks of morality while it institutionalizes the immoral. We decry violence and practice it. We talk about equality and deny it. We practice religion and forget the gospel.”
With the mandate of Jesus echoing in our ears, the responsibility of the church in this current political climate should be clear. There’s no violation of the separation of church and state to say succinctly from the pulpit that hitting people who disagree with us is wrong. Or excluding people who believe different things than we do should stop. Or accumulating wealth while many in our society struggle to make a living wage cannot continue.
We have witnessed — some even in our own lifetimes — the silence of the church in the face of such blatant and egregious reality. Speaking to the political realities of the day might not be the easiest challenge of our pastoral careers; we would be naïve not to notice that preaching about controversial issues of the time is exactly what got Jesus nailed to a cross.
But I don’t think we can afford not to preach about issues in the political life of our country from the pulpit about now. Our courage to witness to the radical love and justice of Jesus might even be what keeps the separation of church and state in place for future generations.
Come on, preacher, the mandate of Jesus is waiting for us to step up: it’s time to get political.