One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s name without the “Reverend” in front of it. Earning a doctoral degree is certainly an accomplishment, but Rev. Dr. King’s political and civic action was fueled by his work as a spiritual leader. The man who looked on as President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act spent more time preaching from pulpits, singing hymns, and pastoring a church than people often remember. With the clear view of hindsight, it is easy to see no conflict between his faith and political action. In fact, Rev. Dr. King is the only American to be honored with a national holiday arguably because of his courageous and skillful ability to create political change through the power of his faith-based morals.
And yet, today’s ministers (with notable exceptions) often shrink from speaking out about issues that they fear are too controversial, when often, political issues are really just topics that Jesus followers have a clear call to action on.
For example, this past week, just days after a temporary ban on refugees from seven predominately Muslim countries was put in place, I heard a minister quote the words of Paul in 1 Timothy 2, which (paraphrased) call us to pray for our leaders. This is something there seems to be bipartisan, universal appeal for; praying for the President of the United States. After all, who can oppose praying for someone; least of all, praying for someone who wields enormous influence? The minister, however stopped short of praying or even mentioning the refugees (despite requests to do so), and he alluded to a desire to steer clear of political commentary that may offend.
But as believers, are we really called to do just the easy stuff? Or instead, are we called to do the difficult, sometimes provocative work that those like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the living legend Congress Member John Lewis did? When we call on our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for our leaders, are we brave enough to also pray for the refugee who may believe differently than us but is trapped in an airport between safety and war? We may not all feel led to march in the streets or be handcuffed, but at the very least, we can show our love for God by showing our love for one another.
At every major turning point in America’s history, the local church has had an opportunity to be a radical voice for what is right even when it is unpopular. At every turn, some churches have bravely accepted this role, and unfortunately some have opted for silence. History buffs will recall that in the 1800’s, for every Quaker minister that fought for abolition, there was a Christian preacher teaching enslaved people that they should obey their masters. Later on, during the 1960’s, Civil Rights Leader Pastor Ralph Abernathy was told by a Southern white evangelical pastor that his work was “a prostitution of the church for political purposes.”
Today, as our country develops policy that will drastically effect the most vulnerable in our society: the homeless, the refugee, the immigrant, the unborn, the impoverished, the victims of prejudice and criminal injustice, the imprisoned and so many others we could easily consider “the least of these”, the church can choose what is easy or choose what is right. Individual believers may not agree on complex issues like abortion, immigration or gun control, but we can agree that we are all made in God’s image and that we deserve honor. We may not all agree on when life begins, but we can agree that children deserve to be supported, loved and cared for. We may not all agree on how to best improve police and community relationships, but we can all mourn with the family of a slain police officer or an unarmed teenager. We may not all agree about the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, but Christ called us to visit those in prison.
If we aim to appease all of the people in the church by saying very little about the things that matter the most, we run the risk of hurting all of the people in the church, particularly those who need us the most. When we meet Christ face to face, we will take a test. He’s already told us what the questions will be, “How did you treat the least of these? Did you feed the hungry? Did you clothe the naked? Did you visit the sick and imprisoned?”
Will we pass the test? Or will we be too worried about appearing political?