Like every other leader of a tax-exempt, religious congregation in this country, I am professionally non-partisan. This means that I have agreed not to use my job as an opportunity to advocate either for a particular candidate or party or against any particular candidate or party. This has never gotten in the way of doing what I think is right--until now.
Being non-partisan does not mean that I am required to be apolitical. That’s a good thing because I am very interested in politics and try to stay engaged in both local and national issues and campaigns. I live in a household where political issues are one of our main topics of conversation and I grew up in a family where the same was true.
I do also identify with a particular political party (my Jewish husband and I sometimes joke that the reason we have been able to find so much common ground is that the primary doctrine of both of our families of origin was the Democratic Party platform). But I have never believed that a particular candidate perfectly represents my values and beliefs, so it hasn’t been hard for me to talk about issues without advocating for or against candidates. Until now.
Our congregation does not shy away from talking about political issues. A few years ago, we worked to create a statement expressing our intentions for these conversations. We began by saying: “As a community, we do not pretend that Christian discipleship is an apolitical activity. Instead, we actively seek to develop political views and actions that are informed by our faith.” I’m pretty proud of that statement.
Our community is theologically pretty liberal and we’re located in a city that is predominantly Democratic so there are a lot of Obama bumper stickers in our parking lot on Sunday. But there are all sorts of other folks in the community—people who strongly identify as Republican, people who float around and people who proclaim their selves “Independent”. So in our statement about political conversation in our community, we wrote: “We recognize that we will come to a variety of conclusions about how our faith directs us to speak and act politically. Not all of us endorse the same policies or candidates or share a political identity and we will do our best to avoid statements that assume political consensus.”
Our commitment to honor political differences and to refrain from endorsing any candidate or party is hugely important to me for a number of reasons. Differences of opinion make any community more interesting. More importantly, there are too few places in our country where people with political differences can talk with each other in thoughtful and respectful ways. And finally, I think a Christian community should stay far away from proclaiming that any particular human being is going to be our savior—we already have someone to fill that role in our lives.
But here’s the problem.
For the last five weeks, our congregation has been focusing on the roots causes of conflict and ways to wage peace. This focus came out of conversations at the end of last year related to mass shootings in our country and the growing threat of terrorism worldwide. We were exhausted by the stories of violence that had dominated the news all year. We decided that we needed to shift our attention to peace—praying for it, celebrating it and finding ways to promote it in our lives, our families, our community and the world.
This focus began in our Outreach Committee (the group that figures out where to direct the thousands of dollars KC give to non-profit organizations each year) and has now spread throughout the congregation. A number of people have pledged to pray for peace daily throughout the Lenten season. We’ve been gathering to pray together three times a week with peace as our central intention. We’ve been talking about peace in worship and in our small groups. It feels like our hearts are united around our shared yearning for peace.
But at the same time that we’ve been lifting up peace in our prayers and conversations, there is a candidate for president of the United States who has increasingly been advocating violence, including violence between his supporters and those who disagree with him. Our focus on peace had nothing to do with this candidate initially—but now, every time we talk about opposing violence, it seems like we’re talking about Donald Trump in particular.
We finally discussed this issue explicitly on Monday night at the last class in our Lenten study of the book, “The Anatomy of Peace”. There were people all various political persuasions in the discussion and every single person agreed that Donald Trump was inciting violence in our country.
“This community has always taken action about the things that we care about,” Wendy said to the rest of the group. “We don’t just talk about things. We can’t just talk about peace—we have to take action.” Everyone in the room agreed.
But what can we do? We fantasized on Monday night about a group of Democrats and Republicans, people from various religious traditions, coming together to pray for peace on Capital Hill. We imagined massive peaceful protests led by people from both parties that proclaim that we can talk together about political differences without insulting, bullying, disparaging or beating each other.
But the fact of the matter is, there is no such movement in this country. Those who protest against Trump often are also advocating for one of his political rivals. And Republicans who are disgusted by Trump have been pretty reticent to call him out and organize against him. In an election year, there is no “neutral ground” from which to speak out against a candidate. Everything is politicized.
So I’m really struggling. I know I am called to speak out against violence—violent behavior and the us-against-them ideology that supports violence. I can—and will—do this as a private citizen. But we’re also yearning to take some action as a congregation. What can we do?