Jesus on my Mind, Hamilton in my Veins
Being “too political” is not an issue of Right or Left. It’s an issue of justice.
“When he went out from there, the experts in the law and the Pharisees began to oppose him bitterly, and to ask him hostile questions about many things, plotting against him, to catch him in something he might say.
Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”
-Luke 11.53-12.5 NET
My mother is a Hamilton born and raised in outstate New York. Legend has it that we are distant relatives of none other than Alexander Hamilton, the Broadway star and “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” … errrr the Founding Father and Treasury Secretary. Though I have yet to see any evidence of ancestry, I am becoming increasingly convinced that I have at least some of Alexander’s blood running through my veins:
Aaron Burr: While we’re talking, let me offer you some free advice. Talk less.
Alexander Hamilton: What?
Burr: Smile more.
Burr: Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.
Hamilton: You can’t be serious.
Burr: You want to get ahead?
Burr: Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.
Alexander Hamilton was no saint, but he understood something important: speaking up to call out injustice is worth the price you will inevitably pay for opening your mouth.
Over the past several months, I have received push back for becoming “too political.” This critique has remained extremely general, the prosecutors’ only “evidence” being unfavorable comments I have made towards the new president of the United States on my Twitter account. Certainly there is more to the story and these individuals’ disdain for my emerging voice, but these real discussions have occurred where “no one else was in the room where it happened.”
Believe it or not, I am not a huge fan of being talked at or talked about, so I would like to speak for myself and simply offer an observation and an explanation.
1. An observation: A prophet is not welcome in his or her hometown.
By “prophet” I refer to the rich biblical history of public truth tellers who use their voice to remind people of faith of their responsibility to represent God and his priorities well.
By “hometown” I refer to those places from which the prophet was originally sent and among whom there is an assumption of exceptionalism.
The prophet uses their shared identity to confront both religious and political entities in the places in which they find themselves. They remind people of faith that they are accountable neither to any king or kingdom. Instead, the faithful have a responsibility to hold themselves, their king, and their kingdom accountable.
Also, he or she is often threatened if they dare confront those who are closest to them.
2. An explanation: “Talking less” and “smiling more” are just as strong political statements as speaking up and acting out.
As someone who aligns much of my faith and practice with the tradition of anabaptism, it is a fundamental conviction of mine to refuse to place my hope in the state, its political leaders, or even its policies. I do not pledge my allegiance to any person, any party, or any nation but to Jesus and his kingdom alone. I had never before voted in any political election, convinced that my only real citizenship and duty is to the kingdom of God which works by much different means than political power and persuasion. In 2008 and 2012, I even derided the insistence that “hope” or “change” can come from anyone other than Jesus, the lamb who was slain.
2016, however, was a different kind of year, provided different kind of candidate, and offered different kind of rhetoric.
Ironically, the reasons I have refused to participate in elections in the past are the very same reasons I have chosen this year to speak up. The Bible, after all, has a curious and consistent way of calling God’s people to a higher standard and chastising them when they fail to live up to it.
The message of Jesus cannot bow to any Caesar, and it cannot be overstated that both major party candidates in the 2016 United States presidential election were historically flawed.
Yet only one candidate exclaimed that he has never asked God for forgiveness.
Only one has repeatedly treated and referred to the opposite sex as mere objects to be rated.
Only one mocked a reporter with a disability.
Only one openly talked about (joked about? lied about?) committing sexual assault and apologized to “anyone who was offended” — which is not the same as apologizing out of genuine remorse.
Most importantly, only one candidate courted — and received — the willing endorsement of people of the Christian faith.
Not everyone would agree, but I believe I have a responsibility as a pastor to (1) articulate the gospel of Jesus — the good news of the in-breaking kingdom of God among us — (2) within the context in which I find myself (3) in a way that encourages formation into Jesus-likeness (4) from those under my care. Sometimes “encouragement” is enjoyable to those enduring formation, while other times our comfort is inflicted in important by painful ways.
This past year, the cultural context into which I was articulating the good news of Jesus endured a seismic shift, requiring someone such as myself who is serious about formation to change their tactics and their message to address the earthquake rather than dismiss it as mere tremors.
So I began taking to Twitter and very occasionally to Facebook to speak out about issues surrounding the current political discourse. My aim was not so much an effort to call out Donald Trump — as if he cares what just about anyone says — as to represent the message of Jesus well and to call back my fellow Christians. I could not grasp how someone who follows and is called to model their lives after Jesus — a dark-skinned Middle Eastern Jew who taught radical welcome of women, foreigners, enemies, the disabled, and the poor — could embrace the personal and political rhetoric of a candidate who regularly threatens each of the aforementioned. Vote for, maybe; embrace, no.
I tried ardently to leave alone issues like fraudulent business activities, tax returns, divestments, and Russian interference. Trust me, this has not been easy. I continued to avoid such topics, however, not simply because the other candidate had her own skeletons of similar measure but also because these were not issues directly related to justice. In contrast, support for a candidate who changed his position on abortion but threatens people to whom Jesus offered comfort does not exemplify a holistic “pro-life” Christian ethic.
To dismiss these things as inconsequential to advocating for Jesus-informed morality is to be both sorely mistaken and poorly informed about the biblical imagination of morality and leadership. One need only look to and learn from the examples of King David and King Solomon, great rulers in Israel’s history whose immoral conquests ultimately led to the demise of the entire nation. The former (David) was “one after God’s own heart” who used his power to sexually assault a married woman and have her husband murdered — misdeeds that brought unending chaos to his dynasty. The latter (Solomon) built Israel into a superpower envied by everyone in the region, but did so on the backs of under-paid foreign and domestic workers — he gained everything and lost his own soul in the process.
Well, we know how the election turned out, and how 81% of white evangelicals turned out in support of Trump. The results, however, did not change my resolve to expect higher discourse and Jesus-shaped activity in the new political reality in which we found ourselves. I told our little congregation on the Sunday following the election that it mattered no longer for whom you voted because the call to be ambassadors of the kingdom of God remains the same. That calling should obligate us to defend the persecuted, to comfort the afflicted, and to confront the principalities and powers who promote injustices which stand in contrast to the teachings of Jesus. In doing so, we are not merely consoling “losers” of the political game but protecting potential victims of political violence.
As Trump and his supporters continued to make clear the injustice and violent policies which they would promote, I continued to use social media to contrast such rhetoric to the way of Jesus. Often this was done with almost no commentary, merely juxtaposing Jesus’ teaching alongside a news headline.
And for the first time, my engagement began leading to real traction in our community.
The weekend following the election, our church was invited to help with an event for our large Latinx population in Richfield to discuss some of the rights they have and could be losing under the new administration. We merely provided coffee — priveleged people willingly standing on the margins of the room, showing our marginalized immigrant neighbors that they are loved. A few weeks later, I was invited to lend my support as a faith leader to a measure before the Richfield City Council to designate our city as a Safe, Welcoming, Equitable, and Inclusive Community. Though time did not allow it, I prepared remarks which you can read HERE explaining why I supported the measure as a Christian faith leader in the community. Behind tremendous support, the Richfield City Council passed the measure unanimously.
Within the new context in we found ourselves, it seemed that confronting the powers with the good news of Jesus was beginning to make a practical impact in our community.
Still, in the days that followed, these successes were the very same pieces of evidence that were used by some to convict me of pastoral malpractice.
“Too political,” they said. “We can’t support that,” they said.
It is not difficult to live a few miles and a world away from Richfield. The homogenous, upper middle class, outer-ring suburbs which border us stand in stark contrast to our culturally, ethnically, religiously, and economically diverse inner-ring city. While I have literal neighbors who surely feel scared, concern over the election results might not be as palpable in other contexts. It is entirely possible to not know anyone whose families might be directly threatened by proposed policies.
If this is your perspective, this is not entirely your fault; we are all products of our context and thus see the world — and the gospel — through the lenses of that context. What is problematic is a refusal to understand a different context and to see the world — and the gospel of Jesus — through the lenses of that context.
As a minister tasked with articulating the good news of Jesus within my context in a way that promotes the hard but necessary work of faith formation, I cry foul. In fact, I wonder if some of my critics are less concerned that I’m being “too political” than they are bothered that I am not being the “right kind of political.”
Many would argue that religious liberty is a political position for which Christians should fight — unless it is reglious liberty for Muslims. Having someone point out the ways in which we benefit from injustice is no easy thing, but “talking less” and “smiling more” while pretending that injustice doesn’t exist is itself a political course. Similarly, unity in superficial things that will not encourage formation into Jesus-shaped living is not unity at all. Just ask Jesus:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life because of me will find it.”
-Matthew 10.34–39 NET
Did I mention that crucifixion was a death reserved for political criminals?
Martin Luther King, Jr. — the civil rights champion whom white people love to strip down to one or two Facebook-worthy quotes — had harsh things to say in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” about these “white moderates” who attempt to remain apolitocal.
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection…
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
I am afraid that King’s assessment has been too true for far too many churches for far too many decades. In a feeble attempt to stand between the “Religious Right” and the “Christian Left” by becoming the “white moderate,” these churches have forfeited the radical message that Jesus’ teachings might have to the powers that threaten violence on God’s children. In the process, they have become complicit to the abuses of those powers and adopted a neoplatonic gospel for the soul with little concern for the material body — or at least for the bodies that aren’t their own.
So why have I become “too political” lately? I have decided to make a conscious decision to follow Jesus into the public sphere — not simply believing in him so I go to heaven some day in the future, but embracing his priorities so I can help beat back hell on earth each and every day. To be sure, this is a more controversial and less profitable endeavor, one that got Jesus killed. Yet to do anything otherwise would to me seem far too much like Judas’ act of betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.
Silence can be a powerful form of apostasy.
So may our hearts be softened to the gospel of Jesus, that which is good news to the poor, the outcast, the prisoner, and the foreigner.
May we find our voices to speak hard truths to an emperor and empire built on alternative facts.
And may we stop short of throwing Jesus off a cliff as we have done to so many others who inflict our comfort.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it!”
Those who have ears, let them hear.