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Christian engagement in the public square is both faithful and biblical

Webinar also answers those who urge preachers to purge politics from their sermons

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Last week’s webinar was sponsored by two centers that are part of Union Presbyterian Seminary.

LOUISVILLE — Preachers and other leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) hear this piece of advice all the time, particularly during the run-up to one of the most divisive elections in U.S. history: preacher, keep politics out of your sermon.

That advice is neither helpful nor biblical, according to panelists convened by Union Presbyterian Seminary in the “Faith & Politics: How Christians Can Faithfully Engage in a Fractured Public Square” webinar aired Friday and available here.

the Rev. Amy Starr Redwine

“There is a line of political engagement throughout the Old and New Testament,” said the Rev. Amy Starr Redwine, pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia. “It can help us make sense of the moment we are in and the larger role of how politics is an integral part of our lives and our life of faith.”

“The Bible is an inherently political document,” said the Rev. Dr. Samuel L. Adams, professor of Biblical Studies and the Old Testament at the seminary and editor of the journal “Interpretation.” “It deals with issues and questions that are tied to the type of society we are going to set up and how we are going to look after each other or not.” Adams suggested people re-read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. “His faith and engagement with Scripture underscore every line he is offering during one of our country’s most desperate and tragic moments in its history,” Adams said. “We were able to rise again” following the Civil War because of the faith of Lincoln and many others.

“I think we need to do a better job of helping people realize faith and politics are not two sides of the same coin,” Redwine said. “I think our faith needs to be the coin, because it helps us make sense of the world we live in … As much as we want the election to be over, these issues that have been so contentious are still going to be with us … I agree that partisan politics has no place in church, but God calls us to care about the communities we live in and the people who are our neighbors, whether they are in the pews or not.”

Redwine said her thinking about civility has been changing since her church engaged in a sermon and educational series on how to engage in difficult conversations.

“Some people who come to Jesus (in the gospel accounts) do so with a remarkable lack of civility,” Redwine said. “They are shouting or crying out for Jesus to heal them or their child … The disciples try to quiet those people. It unnerves us and so we label it as uncivil. Some people have a hard time getting their voices heard, and I think civility can be used to shut that down, to say that we are not going to listen to your point of view if you can’t say it in a certain way.”

“I think those of us who have been served well by this political system have an easier time with having a platform to speak and having our voices heard,” Redwine said. “Children who are not listened to don’t get nicer — they get louder and more insistent. We need to think about that before we write off behavior that’s not civil. Civility has a place, but different opinions need to be heard and responded to.”

The Bible has “competing visions” on the topic, according to Adams.

the Rev. Dr. Samuel L. Adams

“In Proverbs, there are calls for measured, careful, deliberative speech,” Adams said. “You have to think about what you’re going to say. There’s a real call for civility there, to control the tongue, and it’s the same thing in James 3.”

However, “the prophets and Jesus had no patience for social injustice, particularly the mistreatment of the poor, and racial injustice, for which they had to speak out fervently and passionately without any call for civility.” That made Adams think of the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his April 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Was not Jesus an extremist for love?Was not Amos an extremist for justice?

“We need both in society today,” Adams said. “I am not interested in calls for civility when there are more than 500 kid separated from their parents at the Mexican border … I find myself attuned to the need for prophetic speech as well as calls for civility.”

Redwine has recently noticed an update to the “No Justice, No Peace” signs frequently carried during protests. The updated sign says, “Know Justice, Know Peace.”

“That’s an important concept to think about when we think of the notion of civility,” Redwine said. “The prophets were a great example of people who recognized injustice and were not going to be quiet about it. There is an urgency to it. We have seen that, the new calls for justice. It’s a way we have been able to move forward as a country, but they often come with incivility. They are loud and disruptive, and there is destructiveness that is part of that … We don’t want to be cavalier in our calls for civility. It’s a way of silencing people who make us feel uncomfortable.”

We’re at a double set of crossroads, Adams said. One is “a reckoning over systemic racism we have never confronted as honestly as we might and we should. The other is the pandemic and the fact that we seem as a country to be incapable of coming together to address it.” It’s the same basic question people asked during the mid-1960s, he said: “Who are we going to be as a nation and as a people?”

Asked how Christians can leverage their power for the common good, Adams said he preferred this question instead: How can Christians bring their faith to bear for the common good? Following Jesus’ ascension, the disciples develop a fellowship of believers, called koinonia, who are “obligated to help each other out.” Such communities, he said, “will make our communities better in a non-judgmental way.”

Adams said a hallmark of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is “we seek to be transformative agents without telling everyone they are wrong or going to hell, or their theology is bankrupt. We try to do it in a way that is both respectful and seeks to be in dialogue.”

Redwine said that Brené Brown’s distinction between power over and power through and with has been helpful to her thinking.

“Because of our increasingly diverse society,” she said, “it is less true that being Christian confers some kind of power. Part of what we are called to do is leverage power with and for others.” The idea behind discipleship, she said, is “finding that balance between faith formation and outreach, being with God’s people and recognizing that while you’re with them, you’re going to be learning and your theology will be challenged.”

Asked by Union Presbyterian Seminary President the Rev. Dr. Brian  Blount to identify the role seminaries and churches play in modeling the beloved community (a term coined by theologian Josiah Royce and popularized by King) in the public political space, Redwine said it’s her “fervent hope” that the church “can be the place where people who don’t agree politically can come together and agree about theology, God’s care and love for the world and God’s call to us to share that care and love with all people. That’s a great gift the church can give the world, but it’s not easy.”

Sommer Jordan, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary, moderated Friday’s webinar.

To that list, Adams added recovering “a bit of our sense of humor, the ability to laugh at ourselves as we have conversations.” That might involve, he said, thinking of ourselves less as Amos and more as sunburned Jonah seeking protection from — and becoming angry over — a bush God provided him.

“We don’t have the keys to the kingdom,” Adams said, “but a sense of humor might allow us to be a better beloved community.”

Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation and the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership sponsored Friday’s webinar, which was moderated by Sommer Jordan, a Union Presbyterian Seminary student and moderator of its Black Caucus. The next in the series will be held from 7-8:30 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, Nov. 10. The title is “Racial Implications of the 2020 Presidential Election: the U.S. as a Democratic Project.”

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