To say the least and the obvious, we live in a time of confusion and upheaval.
It’s well-known that St. Anthony the Great, one of the church’s Desert Fathers, said: “A time is coming when people will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack that one saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’” We’re living in that kind of time. In the United States, for the most part, people live in enclaves of shared perspectives, in circles of common assumptions, and in tribes of broad agreement. People from different enclaves, circles, and tribes encounter one another in the marketplace and the workplace, in civic and political organizations, and, though less so than used to be the case, in schools and places of worship. When they do, rather than responding with a sincere effort to find common ground or with respectful curiosity about another’s views or with polite disagreement, they’re more willing to say of those with whom they differ: “They’re crazy.” Many Americans now judge difference to be dangerous and see disagreement as grounds for division.
For at least a generation, churches have been becoming more solidly red or more purely blue. Churches which were once “purple”—characterized by political and theological diversity—are less diverse. That’s because many churchgoers want their views and biases confirmed and not questioned—celebrated and not challenged, and they’re more prone to conclude that anyone who challenges their points of view as threateningly out-of-touch with reality. It’s difficult to imagine how repentance, growth, and transformation occur in that kind of climate.
Some more or less purple churches remain, especially in the oldline, mainline, and mainline-like (such as moderate and progressive Baptists) movements. It’s vexingly hard to lead such congregations any time, but especially now. Congregational leaders who address issues of conscience, compassion, and justice will, almost inevitably, be caught in the crossfire between folks who judge them to be either crazy or correct.
Those issues of conscience, compassion, and justice generate intense emotions. The pandemic is, quite literally, about life and death. The economy—at least the Main Street rather than Wall Street economy—is sinking into deeper trouble. The long-overdue reckoning on race raises, for white Americans, uncomfortable questions of complicity in, benefit from, and responsibility for systemic racism. Hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters warn us that we’re not tending wisely and lovingly for God’s good; and those warnings reveal greed in the present moment and carelessness for future generations. Grief, anxiety, frustration, anger, fear, defensiveness, and depression are palpable.
With all these challenges and feelings, there is an election, one of the bitterest in American history. What can congregational leaders do to attain or maintain healthy church life in this season?
- Provide opportunities for people to lament their losses and name their fears. Even in Zoomed or YouTubed worship services, people need permission, encouragement, and language for saying to God and to one another how unsettled and uncertain they feel, for acknowledging what they’ve lost and worry that they might lose, and for opening themselves to the assurance that nothing separates us from God’s love. If those losses and fears remain unspecified and unspoken, they will diminish both individual and collective health.
- Model and encourage civility. Sometimes it can feel like civility is little more than a version of “there are good people on both sides.” Actually, it’s a disciplined and determined effort to treat all people as who they most deeply and truly are: bearers of God’s image and beloved children of God. They might not honor that divine image in themselves or others, and they might fail to treat themselves as cherished children of God or others as their brothers and sisters; but we can still treat them as bearers of dignity and belovedness. We can listen with the purpose of understanding and speak with the intention of clarifying. We can resist the temptation to make agreement a litmus test for acceptance. We can love even those whose positions are like uniforms of an enemy army. As Jesus put it, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
- Remember and ask others to remember that God isn’t partisan, except for the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. To paraphrase a bumper-sticker I used to see often: God is not a Democrat or a Republican or, even, an American. University of Virginia Professor Charles Marsh was right when he wrote: “God would be in every way God without America” (in Wayward Christian Soldiers). What’s more, though it’s difficult for those of us who have strong political loyalties to admit, it isn’t the case that, if Democrats were unhindered by Republicans, they would create a society modeled on the Sermon on the Mount or that Republicans, unopposed by Democrats, would order culture on the Ten Commandments. Politics, like all things human, are fallen and flawed and fall short of the glory of God. Blinding pride, ambitious status-seeking, and restless cravings for more taint the political arena as they do every other arena. Because there are no perfect people, there are no perfect political parties or platforms, and there are no flawless forms of community life.
To almost all of us, there seems to be so much at stake in the choices citizens of the United States make on November 3, 2020. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the heart and soul of the United States hangs in the balance. Under those conditions, congregational leaders might lose track of both the promise and the transcendence of the Kingdom—the rule and reign—of God for which we desperately yearn and to which we are ultimately accountable. I’m helped by sobering and centering words from the French philosopher, theologian, and ethicist Jacques Ellul:
Every time the Church has gotten into the political game, no matter what the manner of her entry, . . .she has been drawn every time into a betrayal, either of revealed truth or of the incarnate love. She has become involved every time in apostasy. . . .Politics is the Church’s worst problem. It is her constant temptation, the occasion of her greatest disasters, the trap continually set for her by the Prince of this world (The Presence of the Kingdom, 1948/1951).
We seek and serve a “city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God and a better country, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11).