In a recent Weekender, I asked: Can preaching ever be apolitical? My hunch is that the answer has to be no, preaching can never be apolitical. But I need to explain what I mean by political if we are going to be on the same page. Former United Methodist bishop and professor of ministry Will Willimon offers a helpful way of understanding political:
To speak among the baptized, those who are dying and being raised (Romans 6:4), is to enter into a world of odd communication and peculiar speech. Baptismal speech need not conform to the reasons of this world (Romans 12:2). Conversation among the baptized is ecclesial in nature, political. A peculiar polis is being formed here, a family, a holy nation, a new people where once there was none (these images are all baptismal, 1 Peter 2:9)” (Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, p. 4).
For Willimon, political does not simply refer to Republican versus Democrat, or America versus Russia. He leans on the root word polis, city, to describe what political speech does. It “forms” a city, “a new people where once there was none.” Yet that city is formed in the midst of the broader world. So, Willimon continues, saying,
a distinctive identity arises from this distinctive community of discourse. There is politics in our preaching. I am troubled by preaching that won’t come clean on its politics. We speak of expository preaching, or narrative preaching, story preaching, inductive, deductive preaching as if preaching were mainly a matter of method, of style, as if nothing political were at stake in the mode of our communication, as if no particular people were congregating due to our speaking, as if being Christian were synonymous with being a good human being who speaks conventional imperial English but with a certain accent” (p. 5, emphasis added).
Here is the point of conflict, the point where I suspect people are uncomfortable with the idea of preaching and politics. Preaching is a matter of identity formation. Because in baptism we fully turn ourselves over to Christ’s calling, there is no aspect of our identity that is free from the correction and criticism of the words of the preacher, words that are an extension of the pastor’s own baptismal ministry. We are not baptized like Achilles, whose mother’s fingers on his heel left a part of him untouched by the waters of the river Styx. We are baptized in water, fire, and Spirit, a baptism that reaches into and lays claim to our whole being. Because of this, we do not get to pick and choose what parts of our life come under the scrutiny of the Scriptures nor do we get to avoid addressing risky topics that arise from interacting with the world within which we are called to be a city on the hill. If certain topics are censored in the pulpit, then who will teach the congregation who they are to be in relation to those topics? How will the congregation know how to be good citizens in the city of the baptized?
Nonetheless, we do not get the luxury of having clear party lines drawn for us. Preaching is not allowed to be partisan, at least not in the American sense of the word, for the only party that demands and deserves the preacher’s allegiance is a party called the Trinity. That should make people more nervous than a preacher committed to the Democrats or the Republicans. The preacher whose loyalties lie exclusively in the Trinitarian camp will call for political action that requires a great deal more than conservatives or liberals will ever demand. The Trinitarian preacher won’t urge you only to vote or to fundraise. They will call you to confess and repent and, consequently, call you to conversion. They will summon you to give your whole life to the Kingdom’s cause. They will call you to the daunting task of a costly discipleship that risks economic or political gain for the sake of the Good News.
Isn’t that the way Jesus preached?