Leave Your Politics at the Church Door?

Worship is always political. I've been learning this the hard way. I admit that on more than one occasion, I’ve wished it didn’t have to be. I’ve wished we could gather on Sabbath morning and forget about our Facebook News Feeds for a while, forget about the incredible division in our nation, forget the vitriol and hurt and fear that seem to accompany every news cycle. Forgetting seemed like it would bring welcome relief. But I’m learning, of course, that forgetting never works. Ignoring doesn’t heal. For forgetting and ignoring are also profoundly political acts. Planning worship week to week, something I've long known has recently become very evident: silence in the face of the world's problems is not spiritual or sublime; It’s consent. It’s consent without even the courage of conviction. 

Worshipping together affords us a time not to forget and ignore but to remember. 

Remembering is, of course, central to our relational covenant with God: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” (Ex. 20:8) More than a duty or burden, remembering is an incredible experience of freedom. Here are several things we are not only duty-bound but inspiringly free to remember as we worship on coming Sabbaths: 

1) Remember our true allegiance is first to God and, for that reason, also to our neighbors whom God loves. In worship, we remember that no political figure, political party or nation is first in our hearts. Whatever human authority figures might proclaim regarding putting “America First,” we celebrate our freedom to “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).

Suggested practice: Lead a well known hymn like “Be Thou My Vision” that reminds us of the one divine King and Kingdom to which our hearts truly belong. Some weeks, the words of “Be Thou My Vision” might seem obvious. But on other Sabbaths, words like “riches I heed not nor man’s empty praise” and “Thou and Thou only first in my heart” are nothing short of prophetic. 

2) Remember our freedom to worship in unity with the entire Body of Christ — women and men of all nations. We may love the country in which we live. But our true community is not defined by its borders and walls.

Suggested practice: Find appropriate hymn texts that have been written to be sung with familiar hymn tunes. One outstanding text that affirms our identification with people of all nations is Ruth Duck’s “Diverse in Culture, Nation, Race.” The text can be easily sung by your congregation to the tune they might associate with the Doxology.

3) Remember our freedom to worship in unity across partisan divides. Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). Were he writing to the church in the United States today, he might have added “there is neither Democrat or Republican.” Whatever the partisan leanings of your local church members, celebrate the fact that those who are not in the majority are welcome and equally valued as well.

Suggested practice: Invite a vocalist in your congregation to learn and sing “See the Love” by The Brilliance. This is one of the few songs I’ve heard that directly addresses the current challenge of divisive polarization in national politics.

4) Remember our freedom to protect those who are most vulnerable among us. Do people who are undocumented know that — whatever their legal status — they are welcome to worship safely among us as brothers and sisters? Scripture’s teaching is clear: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 19:34) It is important to note that this is an appeal not merely to a sense of duty but to our empathy. In the United States, most of us are descendants of immigrants. Moreover, we are all recipients of God’s boundless grace and welcome. As we remember these truths, may our gratitude be embodied in the way we treat those most marginalized by current politics.

Suggested practice: Perhaps the best way to convey welcome is not through our words alone but our actions. Consider not only what you will say and sing but also whom you will ask to actually plan and lead the service this coming week. Exercise your freedom to let those who might sadly hide in the shadows elsewhere help lead your congregation in worshipping the God who — in the person of Jesus Christ — has also experienced the persecution of an empire.

5) Remember our freedom to stand up for what’s right regardless of what any governing administration says or does. Religious liberty is not a partisan issue; it’s a biblical issue. Silence in the face of injustice is a failure to exercise our freedom in Christ. When members of a faith community other than our own are maligned or mistreated or experience discrimination, we need not fear partisan retribution for defending them. For we worship a God who alone is omnipotent yet chooses to inspire our devotion through love for all people.

Suggested practice: Exercise your freedom to boldly preach about the importance of religious liberty, not only for Christians, but for Jews, Muslims and people of all faiths. Preaching about religious liberty for people of faiths other than our own has sadly become a partisan minefield. One of the best ways to avoid being needlessly divisive while upholding Gospel values is by telling a story. And the best way to have a story to tell is to preach what you have already practiced (it’s a lot easier than trying to practice what you’ve only preached). My local church has been working alongside members of a nearby synagogue and Presbyterian church to prepare for the arrival of a Muslim Refugee family from Syria. This family, whom we were helping to co-sponsor, was set to arrive tomorrow, January 30, 2017. But they will now likely be turned away. We pray this will change, but at the moment we are deeply saddened and concerned. We discussed the present plight of Syrian Refugees during the sermon in worship yesterday because, for us, this is our story. It’s personal. And as a community of Seventh-day Adventists who are committed to religious liberty, this personal connection leaves no room for a distant Muslim or Syrian “they” in our thinking. There is no “they.” There is only “we.”

Worship is never politically neutral, but it does reframe our political perspective. Before God’s throne, we are able to recognize that what divides us can be overcome not by forgetting or ignoring but by remembering the God who loves us all. And the God who reconciled us to himself can also reconcile us to one another.