Baptism, Preaching, and Politics

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?

“The Baptism of the Christ” by Daniel Bonnell

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?

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5 thoughts on “Baptism, Preaching, and Politics

  1. Great post Zen! Regarding “politics” and what we mean by it, how do you think Yoder’s definition resonates?

    “The Christian community, like any community held together by commitment to important values, is a political reality. That is, the church has the character of a polis…namely a structured social body….To be political is to make decisions, to assign roles, and to distribute powers, and the Christian community cannot do otherwise than to exercise these same functions, going about its business as a body…we deal with matters of power, of rank and money, of costly decisions and dirty hands, of memories and feelings. [Here’s the punch line] The difference between church and state or between a faithful and an unfaithful church is not that one is political and the other is not, but that they are political in different ways” (Body Politics, viii-ix).

    • Kent: This is a helpful quote. I think it stands right alongside how Willimon describes the political nature of the church in “Peculiar Speech,” and elsewhere. The problem as I see it is getting the church to recognize their political nature in a way that causes them to meaningfully engage in the politics of the church. What I mean is something like what Hauerwas and Tran get at in their article “A Sanctuary Politics” (link below). In that article, they contend that Christians have simply given up on trying to work out a Church politic that can creatively challenges bipartisan American politics. They think we’ve simply forfeited our own political imagination to America’s political imagination:

      “It is simply not true to claim as some have that Christians were forced into voting for Donald Trump. Our belief is that believing they had to vote for Trump, for whatever reason, followed having already surrendered more basic Christian convictions. One might justify this kind of political behaviour (voting for a candidate when there is a preponderance of Christian reasons not to do so) by saying that such measures are necessary in politics, that that is what politics is.”

      This kind of Christian political imagination requires serious reflection on who we are, where we are, and what we have to do. In some instances, I suppose that means engaging in the political structure at hand. Yet, more often, I think it requires us to think outside the box so that we don’t water down Christian witness by simply adopting the state’s way of doing things.

      http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2017/03/30/4645538.htm

      • ..which requires being capable of naming “the states way of doing things.” To which Stanley would probably say you first have a community whose shared life makes it possible that we can do that, or even understand that it needs to be done. Sound right?

  2. Pingback: Leading with Fear: Gathering or Scattering? – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

  3. Pingback: Weekender: May 27, 2017 – Theology Forum

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