There’s been a lot of soul searching going in in our home over the past week. The recent civil unrest over the murder of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers has struck a deep nerve with one member of our household. The main question being asked is, “Should I speak up and publicly share my thoughts?” The question behind the question is In the face of injustice, is it wrong to not publicly say something? Put another way, does one’s silence in this matter inadvertently communicate some level of support or indifference? As the saying goes, ‘[your] silence is deafening.’
As a result of these recent family conversations I’ve been examining my own approach to responding to social issues and situations about which I have strong views and intense feelings. To be honest, through the years I’ve tended to hold back on saying much publically. If I say anything, usually it’s a passing reference to the situation followed by a mostly unobjectionable comment/observation. I’m now asking myself if it would be appropriate to be more vocal with my thoughts, opinions, and observations.
“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”Martin Niemoeller, german theologian and lutheran pastor during world war ii
That I wonder about the appropriateness of publically sharing my personal thoughts on such matters stems from my personal view that the “pulpit” I’m granted on a weekly basis should never be treated as a “bully pulpit.” I’ve always been uncomfortable using my weekly 1-way speaking engagement—sermons are almost always monologs, not one part of a dialog—to definitively say what is and isn’t in regard to the latest social issue or injustice. The reason for this discomfort is straightforward: I recognize that good and faithful Christians aren’t always of one unified voice. In fact, Christians on all sides of an issue can usually provide theological and/or biblical support for their view/belief. So I’ve generally resisted overtly tossing my own perspective into the mix because of the fact that regardless of what I personally think, I’m still responsible for pastoring a people who represent a wide range of beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, some of whom I disagree with. To a certain degree, I’ve always thought that as it regards what’s happening in the public sphere, as an active pastor of a congregation, what I say publically from the “pulpit” should generally be neutral; I should never be seen as being either for or against the people under my care.
But then I remember the Old Testament prophets. And for that matter, Jesus. They had no trouble publicly condemning what they saw as injustice, even if it meant offending those who disagreed with them. In fact, publicly speaking out often landed them in hot water. But they would be the first to say that in the big picture, there’s no differentiating the sacred from the secular. It all belongs to God. And God’s people—including pastors—have not only a right, but an obligation to openly speak out against perceived injustices and wrong-doing no matter where they happen.
As a leader of people, is being publicly neutral, especially in the face of obvious social injustice, always a good thing? I’d have to say no. I’m reminded of something Martin Niemoeller, German theologian and Lutheran Pastor during WWII, said when asked, “How could [the rise of Nazism in a democratic and Christian Germany] happen?” His response is very haunting. “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me” (from jewishvirtuallibrary.org).
In our family conversations this week it was acknowledged that there may be good reasons one chooses to not speak out publicly. But it was also noted that more often than not, fear of reprisal is what has most often kept this family member from saying anything in the past, which they feel doesn’t fall in the category of “good reasons.” Sadly, I had to admit that’s probably been my biggest motivator to “remain neutral” with my pastoral megaphone–fear of upsetting or offending a church member. To be honest, I would be lying to say I wasn’t affected by a conversation I had with a church member early-on in my tenure here at Adrian First. Following one particular sermon in which I spoke negatively about a then-current politician, this person came to me and shared with me the personal belief that mixing politics and religion from the pulpit wasn’t appropriate, and would probably go elsewhere if that was going to be something I’d do regularly. It was directed to me as a threat, nor did I take it as such. But knowing how this person feels, ever since then I’ve been less inclined to publicly take a stance on an a social justice issue that has become politicized for fear that it will be heard as mixing politics and religion.
Is it inappropriate for a pastor to go on record and publicly say that the manner in which Floyd was treated by the police was utterly wrong ? I would say no. How about offering a personal thought about how a group of peaceful protesters in front of the White House were dispersed with rubber bullets and tear gas so that the President of The United States could walk across the street and pose with a Bible in front of a church for a photo opt?
The challenge is, there are probably aspects of both of these situations which I know nothing about. I may have a fairly clear big-picture view of them, but there could be details about each that could change my viewpoint should they come to the forefront.
I guess the bottom line is this: As I move to my new appointment, I’m going to be giving a lot more thought to how I might use my ‘public voice’ to fearlessly speak to the social issues and struggles of the day in a manner that recognizes the fact that we Christians don’t all agree, but also stays true to the history of the Church being a voice for justice and change where the status quo is clearly out of step with the Gospel message of love, grace, mercy, and hope. Please pray for me as I will pray for you.
I think the death of Mr. Floyd is made all the more worse juxtaposed to what we all have experienced in these last months. The sacrifice, generosity, and teamwork required during the pandemic brought out mainly the best in us. Neighbors looking after neighbors, people giving to food banks and delivering food to the homebound, even people doing their best to cheer each other up with funny memes, videos, zoom visits, car parades, block party like workout sessions in the street . . . Human care and concern and creativity at it’s best. We’ve had a taste of how it could be and should be and this death flies in the face of what we know can be. I think this is why the reaction has been so deep and widespread. America is hungry for a Jesus way of life. “Love the neighbor.” So church, our work as believers is far from being done.
This subject, What to Say or Not Say, reaches everyone. Pastor Hart has eloquently expressed his view to his credit. He speaks from the Wesleyan tradition; however, Wesley never had to deal with the IRS and the necessity of treading carefully through the minefield of tax exemption and consequential denial of deductions for charitable contributions. There can be no doubt that our clergy has to walk a tight line to avoid being too political in today’s governmental and societal pitfalls while still maintaining a balance among divergent views of a congregation. My personal approach is tolerance for whatever position my pastor espouses and to listen respectfully when he speaks, but if I disagree he will hear it directly from me. This seems to work for both of us. I hope Pastor Hart will continue to speak out.