A Joyful Journey

In this September blog, Bishop David Bard explores the relationship of Church and Politics.

Michigan Area

Church and politics. Let’s just jump with both feet into the crazy busyness of the fall. Of course, the summer was not a break for church and politics as many people of faith, myself among them, wrote in the aftermath of Charlottesville that Christian faith stands against “the spiritual forces of wickedness” and that we should “accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” (from the baptismal vows in The United Methodist Hymnal). Whenever I met with couples having their child baptized, or with those seeking baptism, one example I used of spiritual forces of wickedness was racism. The moral dimensions of our Christian faith spill into the political.

I want to reflect with you on church and politics in another way, though. I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the health of our democracy, and about what the church may have to offer. As I’ve mentioned before, my doctoral dissertation work included significant reading in democratic political theory. One need not be well-versed in that literature, though, to have a sense that our democracy in the United States is not as healthy as we would like, not doing as well as we might hope. Elected leaders, regardless of party affiliation, often seem more concerned with winning elections than with working toward a common good once elected. Citizens seem less able to debate solutions to agreed upon problems, spending instead more time arguing about the facts and about what constitutes “fake news.” We struggle to find common sources of trusted information. We struggle to articulate shared values.

What does this have to do with the church, with being followers of Jesus Christ in community? Democracy works better when citizens share certain habits and practices. The church, at its best, also encourages and cultivates many of these critical habits and practices.

“Habits and practices rooted in mutual respect should characterize the church and are crucial for the health of democracy.”

Democracy depends upon mutual respect, a sense of the worth and value of every other person. The church as followers of Jesus in community is rooted in the idea that all persons are loved by God, “for God so loved the world” (John 3:16). All persons are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Habits and practices rooted in mutual respect should characterize the church and are crucial for the health of democracy.

Democracy involves a shared search for wisdom, an ability to reason together. The church, as followers of Jesus in community, follows a Jesus who was, in part, a wisdom teacher. As we read the gospel portraits of Jesus we encounter a person engaged in the wisdom debates of his day with Pharisees and Sadducees. In a self-referential moment, Jesus proclaimed, “wisdom is vindicated by her children” (Luke 7:35). The Gospel of John refers to Jesus as “the Word” (Logos – wisdom) made flesh. The Scriptures from which we draw our understanding of God and being God’s people contain numerous wisdom passages and an entire book dedicated to wisdom sayings or proverbs. Searching for shared wisdom is critical for the health of a democracy. “The social practices that matter most directly to democracy… are the discursive practices of ethical deliberation and political debate” (Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 293). Wisdom seeks to embrace the wonderful complexity of the world in which we live. Wisdom is enhanced by nuance and subtlety and shrinks when we too quickly paint things in either/or terms. The radio host Krista Tippett is right when she says, “the world right now needs the most vivid, transformative universe of words that you and I can muster” (Becoming Wise, 10).

The democratic search for shared wisdom entails rich conversations. Democracy is inherently dialogue, dialogue rooted in mutual respect and in search of shared wisdom. Our democratic dialogue recognizes that every person has something to contribute, a bit of wisdom to share, and we need to listen in the midst of our differences. “Real respect for others takes seriously the distinctive point of view each other occupies. It is respect for individuality, for difference.” (Jeffrey Stout, 73) It is important to listen to other voices not simply because each person has some wisdom to share, but also because each of us can be limited in our perspective, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Our churches as communities of followers of Jesus recognize that human beings are created in God’s image, all are loved by God, and all have the capacity for self-deception.

“Our democratic dialogue recognizes that every person has something to contribute, a bit of wisdom to share, and we need to listen in the midst of our differences.”

Practices of mutual respect, search for wisdom, and dialogue are important in both politics and church. So, too, are the habits and practices of humility and magnanimity. In a recently published book on religious language in public, democratic conversation the author writes, “In the contemporary political context, increasing in both pluralism and polarization, the virtue of humility will become an increasingly important quality to cultivate for those who want to deploy prophetic rhetoric successfully” (Cathleen Kaveny, Prophecy Without Contempt, 421). To acknowledge that sometimes I get it wrong, that sometimes others know more than I do, that sometimes I deceive myself, is critical in a democracy, and should be part of our life together as followers of Jesus. John Wesley described Christian perfection as the “humble, gentle, patient love of God and neighbor, ruling our habits, attitudes, words, and actions.” Humble spirits should also be large and generous spirits. I have long appreciated words written by theologian Lewis Smedes in his book, A Pretty Good Person. “What we often need is not to be forgiven, but to be indulged a little. Not every annoyance needs forgiveness. Some pains beg only for a little magnanimity…. With a little magnanimity, the quality of a big soul that puts up with small pains, we can reserve serious forgiveness for serious offense.” (170) If you have read this far, you have granted me some magnanimity for which I am grateful, and I hope you will continue offering it by reading to the end of this brief essay.

“The habits and practices that contribute to a healthy democracy are habits and practices of the church at its best – mutual respect, search for wisdom, dialogue, humility, magnanimity.”

The habits and practices that contribute to a healthy democracy are habits and practices of the church at its best – mutual respect, search for wisdom, dialogue, humility, magnanimity. Let’s be honest, the church is not always at its best. This essay is really less about politics and democracy than it is about the church. While I care deeply about the health and well-being of our political democracy and would offer theological reasons for that, my primary concern is for the health and well-being of our churches. The quality of the life we create together as followers of Jesus in community profoundly affects both the ability of our churches to be places that help people grow in God’s love and the ability of our churches to welcome others into the journey with Jesus. We long for places where we are loved and respected. We yearn to grow in wisdom and for genuine conversation about things that matter. Our souls thirst for relationships characterized by humility and magnanimity. Jesus invites us to create this kind of community, in the power of God’s Spirit. The church, at its best, is a community called by God in Jesus to live Jesus way of love and compassion by the power of the Spirit. When the church is itself, it also contributes something to the quality of the political community in which we live.

One way that we can live out this kind of community will be through the “Weaving Our Future” conversations I will be hosting in the coming months. I hope and pray that together we will be able to have constructive conversations about The United Methodist Church, LGBTQ inclusion, church unity, reading the Bible together and following Jesus together. More information about these sessions will be coming soon. Beyond that, however, I hope you will ask how well we are living the Jesus way together as Michigan United Methodists.