On a recent Sunday our congregation sat down to a discussion during the Sunday School hour. We usually do something like this every year in February as we commemorate Black History Month. This year our discussion leader (Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr.) led us through some thoughts on Black Lives Matter, the difference between the concept and the organization.
The continuing discussion brought up questions about protest, the use of protest, and various efforts to bring about justice and righteousness in the community and the nation.
One of my observations about Evangelicals, especially those of us in the PCA, is our hesitation to take public stands, or to become involved in protests or demonstrations. We are reticent to make or do anything which might be construed as a political statement. At one and the same time of course the whole country pretty much knows where we stand on political issues, both by our statements, our sermons, our social media discourse, and our votes.
I read and hear criticism of pastors who write or speak very much about social or political issues. I also read or hear comments that tend to spiritualize any approach to issues, such as calling to prayer, and a negative opinion about going outside the doors of the church to march, or demonstrate in some way.
While many in our churches see any discussion or mention of social or political issues as straying from the Gospel I tend to see our reticence as a dogged maintaining of an often unjust status quo and a refusal to make our faith known concerning issues of justice. We have in our church used prayer as social protest. We have used protests at abortion clinics as evangelism.
This last year we had a very public prayer walk and march, with seasons of prayer as we began and when we finished, in protest against recent gang shootings and killings in our neighborhood. Was it spiritual to pray? Of course, blessedly so! Was it political to march? I think so, but it probably didn’t seem that way to most people who are against murder. Gang leaders might have taken it another way and as soon as you have two sides to an issue, whether they be right or wrong, you have politics.
What often comes across during a “spiritual” rebuke to any public demonstration by Christians is that often the “issue” is what really matters, and this is the underlying offense, and not usually so much the behavior of demonstration or protest. I think we always need to be discerning about both, not only to how a protest or demonstration is conducted but also as to what the issue might be.
As believers we must be non-violent, we must be loving, even to our enemies. We have to follow the example of Jesus who when he was reviled did not answer in the same way. Another problem some have with protests is that good guys and bad guys might come to the same rally for the same reason, and conduct it in the same way. So, if an anarchist, or a socialist, or a Muslim, or a Catholic, or a Democrat, or a Tea Party member shows up at a rally in which I am standing for something righteous, or just, then I welcome them to the event. However, not everyone shares our values as to being loving, meek, non-violent, and seeking conciliation.
There are times when we cannot stand with those who will take actions, or use strategies, that are antithetical to our faith. For me there are uniforms that would be so antithetical to my faith that I couldn’t stand with them even if they were against the same things I am against. I don’t think I could stand with a Klansman, or a Nazi. A nudist would bother me as well.
I believe we have to always be angry at evil. There is no other godly way to feel about it. This does not make us angry people. I think we always have to be angry at oppression and injustice, but this does not mean we are called to slander, belittle, misuse, hurt, malign, or commit violence against those who practice it. One of the problems with social media protest is that we often assume we know someone’s motives and mock them for a motive we actually have no honest or accurate way to discern. To articulate and describe their behavior is accusation enough. To call for penalty within the law is legitimate and does not make us vicious.
Civil disobedience calls for a lot more thought and justification. Sometimes there is absolutely no other way to protest an unjust and evil law except to disobey it, and be willing to go to jail for violating it, until such laws are changed.
Churches as churches have to be very discerning about what moral or justice issues they will speak about or against, but if they will not speak up against clear and sustained injustice or abuse then they are being disobedient to the Scriptures, hypocritical, and protectors and partners with oppression. One of our problems in Evangelicalism is that we won’t even discuss these issues in the church, so how are we ever going to have discernment about them?
Pastors especially have to know where their place of leadership should be, and when and where they must curtail their political or social involvement for the sake of maintaining a pastoral and shepherding role for everyone to whom they must minister. They must never let their pulpit ministry be consumed with anything but the Glory of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the grace of God, and the call of the Kingdom of God.
This is why pastors are subject to their brethren and have to be humble enough to listen to their Elders. It is easy to become self-righteous when inflamed with the issues of social righteousness and justice. It is also too easy to be passive and negligent in standing for the rights of the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the immigrant. I personally don’t want to sin either way but I think the much more frequent sin, and easier and often taken road is to do nothing; and I don’t believe this is acceptable to God. Lord, give us humility, wisdom, good counsel, strong Scriptural understanding and conviction, sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, faith, and courage!