Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Just Shut Up!
The current political campaign has given Christians a megaphone and what we’re hearing is not pretty. The faithful of every stripe seem to have divinely inspired opinions; the result is less holy symphony than embarrassing cacophony. Conservative evangelicals are busy explaining away Newt’s serial marriages, stoking suspicion of Mitt’s Mormonism, and rewriting the history of the Middle East to insure that a two state solution doesn’t forestall their vision of end times. Catholic Bishops are accusing Obama of an assault on religious freedom, apparently because he believes that federally funded health care ought to provide equal benefits to all. Mainline Protestants, cranky about Obama’s disappointing record but even more appalled by the prospects of Newt and company, are quiet only by virtue of their confusion. Then along comes the lunatic Christian fringe like the Florida Family Association attacking the reality TV series, All American Muslim, because it portrays Muslim families as normal people going to work and raising children. Maybe it’s time for Christians to just shut up.
I’m not one to argue that the voice of the faithful should be barred from the public square. Personal piety and public responsibility are the twin foundations of Christian life, particularly viewed through the lens of the Reformed tradition of which I am a part. But that voice, I fear, has grown reckless, informed more by partisan trends than Biblical wisdom. If shutting up isn’t the answer, then perhaps a healthy dose of modesty is.
There are two good reasons for this. First, the complexity of almost every public issue is such that bumper sticker slogans, even when cloaked in religious language, rarely offer more light than heat. Christians would provide a more compelling witness, for example, if in the political campaign over the coming months they didn’t endorse “Christian” candidates or offer a “Christian” opinion on every manner of subject, but showed up at every political event demanding that the candidates address the issue of poverty in this nation and the world. Relentless persistence about this social sin, with its rich and omnipresent Biblical warrants, might actually change the public debate across the political spectrum, and give the church a measure of public respectability it either lacks or is currently squandering.
The second reason for modesty is that politicians are notoriously fickle suitors. Do the evangelical activists in Iowa really think Newt or Mitt is going to care one bit what they think once the votes are in? Three years ago the heads of mainline churches gathered in Washington for their annual retreat. These three days were normally set aside for significant times of personal sharing, silence, prayer, and reflection. I used to value these days greatly and since this one was to be my last, I had been particularly looking forward to it that year. But my colleagues were all abuzz about the recent election of Obama and wanted to spend the time strategizing about how we were going to use our presumed new found influence in Washington. They couldn’t stop talking about how to get the new president’s ear on this issue or that and, even worse, who among us would get to pray at the inauguration, or preach at the prayer service, or get VIP tickets to which events. I felt like I’d regressed to high school where everyone was wondering who would get invited by whom to the prom. Had we lost our minds?
Three years later the answer is evidently “yes.” We were invited to meetings on a variety of public policy subjects during the transition. Even I dutifully went to a couple. Mid-level aides listened to a crowd of us make our pitch on our chosen themes, politely asked a few questions and took notes, and thanked us for our wisdom. And then I suspect they headed back to offices, complained about having to spend their time listening to a bunch of preachers, and filed the notes in the wastebasket.
The months between now and November offer a dreary prospect of endless campaigning. Great things are at stake, but pettiness will no doubt be the order of the day most of the time. The seductions of divine sanction and political influence will lure many Christian leaders into full throated voice on behalf of this cause or that. I don’t really think we should all just shut up, though that would spare many embarrassment and disappointment. But faithful daring and courage would do well to claim a certain modesty and a deep appreciation for irony.
John’s father, Zechariah, was struck dumb when he decided he, rather than the angel of the Lord, could name the trajectory of his future along with that of creation itself. It may well be that his period of imposed silence allowed him, when he did finally speak, to offer blessing rather than blather. Advent is fleeting, but there is still time to learn the discipline of silence so that when we offer our public voice, as we must, what the world will hear is the Word of One who will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Benedictus!
John H. Thomas