When This Pastor Got Political
Two months ago I went to a town hall meeting sponsored by our district congressman.
Never have I been the kind of person to do this. Although I’ve always had relatives or friends from the “zealot-fringe” who got frothed up about their party or their cause, I typically rolled my eyes at their Facebook posts and moved on. I am a pastor from a faith tradition that, on the one hand, believes on a theological level that Christians should engage in and redeem the political sphere, but on the other hand, prefers that pastors shut up and stay out of politics when speaking from the pulpit. For 30 years in ministry, I have neglected the former and abided too much by the latter.
Over the last five years, and with special intensity in the last two, things have been changing within me. Things we politely call “social issues” or “justice issues”—the kinds of things which, like the priest and the Levite in the parable of The Good Samaritan, I have “passed by on the other side”—well, these things now keep me awake at night. My soul is grinding and churning to make some kind of Christian sense of it all, and I am lurching by fits and starts down a road I have never traveled. I am desperately trying to get it right, and I have the terrible sense that for most of my life I have gotten it wrong.
I am a little preacher serving quiet churches on country roads. But now I feel restless. I want to rise up and do something that matters. Every day I get wrapped up in the news, and I pack and un-pack these things with equally troubled pastors. I have gone to marches and painted signs. Sometimes when I pray, I discover tears in my eyes, and I look down to find my fists are clenched.
And all of this soul-churning is leaking out of me when I preach. I am going out on untested limbs in my sermons, and the people of my congregation, most of whom have accepted opposite political conclusions, can feel it. This has resulted in some delicate meetings in living rooms and coffee shops with members of the church I serve, and a few sweaty-behind-the-knees discussions with our elders, as they fulfill their duty by trying to understand what’s happening with me.
Then I saw my chance to make a difference: a town hall meeting moderated by my congressman. I had left phone messages at the congressman’s office—both his local office and his office in DC—but now I wanted to stand and speak in person to one of the powers of earth. I had a little speech outlined in my head, and because our congressman is from my faith tradition, I planned to “let him have it.” I thought he was a coward and a hypocrite, and I expected more. And in these sentiments, I was most certainly united in heart and spirit with the majority of people in attendance.
The Town Hall Meeting
The middle-school auditorium was packed with nearly 1,000 people. Many lined up against the walls, and 250 more gathered in an overflow room. While waiting in line to get in and then waiting inside for the meeting to start, I talked with a lot of people. It was a standing-room-only circus. At first this was, I admit, edgy and exciting.
Then the meeting started.
The congressman took a handheld mic and offered it to a young woman who stood up to speak about her uterus and its rights and insurance and its impact upon her uterus. Someone behind me, who had apparently been calculating the medical costs of her indiscretions with her uterus, yelled out that condoms were cheaper. Then another man jumped up from behind the congressman, grabbed the mic from his hand, and started yelling about what would have happened if his wife had been aborted. It was, from the get-go, like an episode of Jerry Springer.
The people seated in the row behind me offered loud, running commentary. They had been to the congressman’s town hall in a different locality the previous week. (This, apparently, was what they did instead of staying home and watching Netflix.) They would call out, “That’s not what he said last week,” and then a few minutes later, they would yell, “Oh, c’mon; you said the same thing last week.” When the congressman offered details on a subject (and I had to admit, he was pretty intelligent), the couple would say, “T-M-I! T-M-I!”
If the congressman talked too long, people would yell, “You’re stalling!” When the subject was health insurance, people shouted, “What about Russia?” And when the subject turned to Russia, someone yelled, “What about taxes?” So the congressman started to explain taxes, using his own tax-life as an example. Someone shouted, “We’re not here to hear about you!” Others chanted, “Tax the rich!” Name a subject, and everyone in the place could locate and yell out some related subject about which they were enraged. It was like a loud, strange word-association test.
This reminded me of my children’s sermon from the week before, when I said, “Fish” (as in, fishers of men), and a kid raised her hand to talk about Cheerios. But then, at least the child had raised her hand. No, this … this thing happening in the school auditorium was like a spark floating around in a fireworks store. Any particular word might ignite a series of explosions.
The Human Piñata
The congressman himself became a piñata. For a long time, only hearing about him and never hearing him speak, I thought him an arrogant jerk. Now I could see that, although I still almost completely disagreed with his policies, he was smart, gracious, and tough—and really quite fearless. No matter what he said, he was going to lose every time, but he would say it anyways.
On the subject of education, he made the mistake of disclosing that he sent his kids to a Christian school. People spat out, “That’s because you can afford it.” When he said he was on the government health care plan, people grimaced and said, “Yeah, ri-i-i-ight.” People would try to pin him to the mat with questions about complicated issues, then jab a forefinger at him and say, “Yes or no?” So he would openly state his position, which only (as he knew it would) brought forth more opposition.
And then, strangely, in the middle of talking about a subject for which they hated him, he would mention a small thing they liked. Then they stood to applaud. They were like split-personality dogs. They would mostly bite, but sometimes, with a different synapse tweaked, they would jump up, lick you, and pee on your leg.
The congressman stuttered once, and the people around me, some of whom were there to advocate for the weak, chuckled and sneered. When he took a break to sip some water (the meeting was nearly three hours long), people viewed it as a sign of nervousness and called out, “Stop stalling.” At one point, the congressman asked one of his aides to bring a mic to a woman and made the unfortunate, split-second choice to say, “Jack, grab that woman, will ya?” Lots of people booed at this, interpreting it as a sexist offense. The woman next to me said, “Ha-ha! Yeah, right. Freudian slip, for sure.”
Speaking of the woman next to me, I had talked with her for a while before the meeting, so she decided we were comrades. Throughout the meeting, at every juncture, she turned her head and talked to me in conspiratorial tones. At first I politely smiled and nodded my head, but after a while I just stared at the speaker and pretended not to hear.
King of the Tiny, Melting Mountain
Eventually the meeting ended because the building needed to close. But the congressman remained with a crowd of 40 people who wanted to talk to him (as did I). I listened from a distance to all sorts of people with pet causes that had gone unaddressed, insights to share from their research on the Internet, or personal views on the economy and how to fix it.
When the building closed, I left without an opportunity to ask him about my concerns. A woman, a total stranger, walked out with me. Her car was parked on the same stretch of sidewalk as mine. She didn’t get to speak her mind in the meeting either—about her cancer, insurance, and bankruptcy. She was struggling with a difficult issue and needed to be heard. This was life-and-death for her. As we said goodbye, she added, “Well, at least I got to tell it to you.”
My guess is, most of the people at the town hall meeting came because they felt the injustice of the world. These noble desires, however, disintegrated into … well, this is lousy to say, but after three hours it all seemed petty. The poorest among us in that room were among the most privileged humans in the world, but we still felt ripped off. Nobody wanted to hear of the multiplicity of needs, or the limited resources, or the complicated choices. Everybody forgot whatever their higher goal may have been, and instead they chose to yell about their piece of the pie.
Alone in the dark of my car on a side-street, I just felt sad. I, too, had lost my bearings.
Because if there was a hypocrite in the room, it was me. There in the meeting, I was looking down on everyone, including the congressman. I was making snap judgements, as if I were better or more put together. And I had been yelling, too.
Many times, when someone attacked the congressman on an issue, I stood up and yelled and clapped. Once, when the congressman was five feet from me, I raised my hand and held it in his face, pressing myself forward to be recognized. Any observer would have been reminded of an elementary school kid who had to go to the bathroom really, really badly.
The previous Sunday, I had done a sermon about the kingdom of God. To portray the kingdom of Earth, I showed a picture of the last un-melted snow in a parking lot, covered with dirt and surrounded by debris. I talked about how the kingdom of Earth has always been about trying to be King of the Mountain on this soon-to-be-gone pile of ice and dirt.
Putting my car in drive after the meeting, I felt like we had all just lived that out, clawing and ripping at whatever or whoever we perceived was at the top of that melting pile. In some nameless way, everyone was thirsting for righteousness, but without thinking much of its source. And I had done the same. It hit me that I had never even thought of offering something of eternal faith to that woman with cancer before she got into her car and drove away.
I wondered, the winter road humming beneath my car, if this empty feeling within me was why the apostle Peter, the apostle Paul, and even Jesus seemed so frustratingly detached from political things. For the first time on my new political activist road, I felt in my gut that I had used my freedom, if not for evil, then at least for a human and vengeful purpose.
Maybe that’s what people in our church were feeling, lately, in my sermons. I had been thinking, all along, that I was being prophetic, but really, I was angry. This anger was not always about the larger biblical issues or even the politicians. I was angry because I didn’t understand how people could see these issues so differently. Many Sundays I had come pretty close, right there in our sanctuary, to … er, um … yelling at them.
Then it came to me like a brick into my chest: I am going to die. And no one in government, good or bad, can fix that. Tragedy strikes and sickness comes and sometimes there is no way to stop it. Some people have a lot, and some people have less, and it is never fair. This is fallout from the Fall.
A Little Preacher on a Country Road
I feel, now, happier to be a little preacher on a country road. Whatever I do or say, I realize, doesn’t matter much to the big world, but even in my sphere, there is an everlasting kingdom to talk about. And while I’m pointing to Christ, vengeful, wild anger must have no place in this preacher’s heart.
Still, if there is another town hall nearby, I will likely go. The concerns and convictions of my soul that took me to the first one are even more pressing than before. I will still call my congressman and urge action. (I have his number programmed in my phone.) I will still address the issues of the day in my sermons.
But I need to keep my soul in the right place while finding greater ways to advocate for justice—and to actually do justice. I need to keep engaging, but with an equanimity and a dignity that reflect the confidence of someone whose existence rests in the “life that is truly life.”
I am just a little preacher, but the church and its message, which seemed at one time to be so small, now rise within me as the true hope of the world.
Keith Mannes is pastor of East Saugatuck Christian Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan.