Falling Seed: Pastoring during political turbulence

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It’s no secret: We live in an age of unprecedented political turmoil, with last week’s storming of the Capitol serving as yet another blatant reminder of the fractured state of our Union.

At no point in recent history have Americans been more opposed to one another, unwilling to sit down at the tables of peace or commonality. Instead, folks are choosing to wage a war of vitriol and misinformation over social media and amidst family gatherings.

For those in ministry, the challenge continues to grow. Speak out too much, and suddenly the pastor is ostracized. Don’t speak at all, and the shepherd risks allowing sin or hatred to run rampant among the flock.

Love and serve everyone on all sides of the various spectrums, and perhaps the minister will be accused of being “too moderate” or “without conviction” for simply doing his or her best in these days of heightened emotionalism and scrutiny.

When considering how to approach our disheartening political arena, I would encourage us to look to Jesus, who offers us a better way forward and sympathizes with us as we navigate this hostile political landscape. Jesus had to navigate faithful Christian leadership in a toxic political climate, just like us.

Political turmoil in Jesus day

When describing the political unrest that pervaded much of first-century Judea, including Jesus’ home region of Galilee, many biblical scholars use the word “hotbed.”

While Americans find themselves between two powerful political parties battling for supremacy, Jesus found himself in a land where a multitude of groups vied for political influence. Not only were four Jewish groups—Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and the radical anti-Roman Zealots—fighting for control, various Roman governors and entities were attempting to assert their dominance as well.

Citizens weren’t categorically and superficially judged only by which Jewish political “party” they were associated with, but also by their sentiments toward Rome, which province they were from, and their worship practices.

On top of the political complexity were unjust social structures of classism, racism and sexism nearly impossible for our modern minds to comprehend.

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In context, the term “hotbed” sounds like an understatement. The socio-political landscape Christ lived through was far messier than ours.

The stakes of this first-century political battleground were higher than ours, too. The Judean people were—for all intents and purposes—serfs of the Roman Empire. The punishment for insurrection, malice or ill will against the Roman Empire was death—specifically, death by tortuous crucifixion. To find oneself on the wrong end of the political spectrum in this climate wasn’t just scandalous; it was dangerous.

The Incarnate God who understands

Jesus relates to us as we work through our own tense political time and place in history, because he lived in one, too.

Hebrews 4:15 considers the impact of Christ’s humanity. The writer declares: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

Jesus understands every fragility, imperfection and woe of human life as we know it. He sympathizes with us and holds grace for our weaknesses even as we attempt to discern best leadership practices during this tenuous political moment in American history.

We know the story. Our Lord died on a cross, despite Pontius Pilate’s judiciary declaration of innocence. At the end of the day, both the elites of the Jewish bureaucracy and Roman leaders like governor Herod Antipas wanted Jesus dead, because he threatened their political power.

Faithful as ever to his Father, Jesus spoke the truth, loved all who he encountered, and set his sights on the eternal kingdom of heaven rather than the political entrapments around him. Often, this brought him necessarily into conflict with the political players of the day.

Perhaps our faithfulness to Jesus, our commitment to tell the truth and our effort to love all whom we encounter necessarily pits us against the political players of our day as well.

We, too, can face today’s political challenges

When we set our sights on the kingdom of heaven rather than the political entrapments around us, it often leads to what Tim Keller describes as political homelessness. We necessarily will butt up against both sides of the American political establishment.

This is the reality many pastors are afraid to grasp—the gospel is inherently political. When Jesus demands we each pick up our cross and follow, it includes sacrificing the comfort of political apathy and the safety of bipartisan conformity.

The lifestyle Jesus demands is inherently countercultural. I’m confused why many Baptists are quick to embrace the idea of being countercultural, yet fit squarely without second thought into either American political party. I have no doubt, if Jesus walked among us today, he’d rub against the platform of both Republicans and Democrats with something radically different.

May I challenge us, Christian leaders, to do the same, to remain faithful to Jesus over the priorities of the political powers?

Thanks be to God, none of us face crucifixion for any political alignment or misalignment we articulate. But we certainly face public backlash, departing church members and questions concerning our call to the ministry.

Jesus, the Incarnate God, has words for us in this season: “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man.” (Luke 6:22 ESV)

Jesus did not fall squarely into any political party of his day, and neither should we. Perhaps that is how we are charged to imitate him in this season. The resurrected Christ sympathizes with our struggle to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly” (Micah 6:8) in a country where that, in and of itself, is a political statement.

Scotty Swingler is the associate pastor and youth pastor of First Baptist Church in El Campo, Texas, where he lives with his wife Ambree. He is a graduate of Baylor University and George W. Truett Theological Seminary. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

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