Whether the pulpit is the right place for political commentary is hotly debated. My experience is that church goers don’t mind if what’s said is marginally related to God and generally in accord with their own beliefs. It leads to politically segregated congregations with the liberal church at one end of town and the conservative church at the other. In between are congregations with ministries that address favored issues while pretending they’re biblical, not political. The constitutional separation of church and state has never found a meaning acceptable to all parties, which means the phrase has become a blunt instrument used to defend every possible interpretation while attacking others. Ever wonder what God might have to say about preaching and politics?
The lectionary gives us a few weeks in Amos where I believe God has thundered with political judgment, holding preachers accountable for boldly proclaiming God’s expectations for society’s public policies. To be sure, Amos was sent to the kingdom of Israel in the reign of Jeroboam II, which seems too remote from our 21st century republican democracy to be of any use. But God appears to be disinterested in forms of government, yet has a great deal to say about standards of justice and equity transcending centuries of developments in governmental structure. Moreover, I believe God’s ordained ministers are required to proclaim them in our day as was Amos in his.
What we are called to proclaim is not necessarily safe to proclaim. It wasn’t for Amos who got kicked out of the kingdom, but there are ways to be diplomatically bold by avoiding party and candidate endorsements, and by showing respect for a broad range of points of view. Nevertheless, no bold preacher has ever avoided controversy altogether. It’s the price of being called to preach God’s word.
What was Amos called to preach that also challenges us? God condemned Israel and surrounding kingdoms for public policies that offended the standards of godly justice. They included policies that betrayed treaties and covenants of friendship, engaged in ethnic cleansing, used food supplies as weapons, and sent whole populations into exile. God was outraged at policies that manipulated the working poor into the bondage of debt, deprived the poor of the necessities of life, and imposed taxes favoring the rich. Corrupt judges, incitement of civic violence, and disrespect for legitimate civil authority got God’s goat. Those who lacked compassion for the suffering of others, and took undue pride in their status were an affront to him. What was true 2,800 years ago is no less true today.
We no longer live in the time of kings like Jeroboam, for whom government and religion were one. Now the world is filled with combinations and permutations of governments defying easy classification. Our particular form of a democratic republic is unique and may not work for others, but we’re convinced that representative democracy, adapted to fit local cultures, is the best kind of government to optimize individual freedom and social well being. As Americans, we say government should not establish or favor any form of religion, but should protect everyone’s right to worship as they please (with cautious suspicion that there may be limits to what’s allowed). It hasn’t stopped some sectarians from asserting their rightful place as the U.S.A.’s only legitimate religious faith, but that’s for another column. The point is that God’s expectations for what just public policy should strive for are universal truths that must be taken seriously.
I’m convinced it’s imperative that preachers do what they can to proclaim God’s expectations for just public policy, boldly confronting injustice, and teaching those to whom they’re sent to do the same. There’s no one right way to do that. Authentic and honest expressions of it may look conservative to some and liberal to others, but keeping God’s expectations at the center will help open ways to reasonable and workable, albeit imperfect, agreements.