I grew up in the heat of both the Civil Rights struggle and the Viet Nam War. At the time, my father was a student minister at a small church in Illinois. I only vaguely remember hearing about either issue in the news, or on the playground, or some other place. What I don’t ever remember hearing was my dad preaching about it in church. In fact, I don’t ever remember my dad ever talking about it outside of church.
Now, that’s not to say that my father didn’t have opinions about the treatment of African Americans or the prospect of sending young men to kill and die in a foreign country for no apparent reason. That’s also not to say that my father didn’t speak about those things in church; I may have just been too young, playing tic-tac-toe with my brother or trying not to fall asleep to have heard. I’m sure he probably did have well-formed convictions about the most pressing socio-political issues of his day. The problem was, I never knew what they were. Moreover, I don’t know whether or not the congregations he served knew about them either. Now he’s gone, and I can’t ask him.
To be fair, the religious tradition in which I grew up, and the one my father labored in throughout my childhood, didn’t typically think about social issues as appropriate topics for theological reflection. No, that’s not right. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t think about the big social issues, I suspect, but that thinking is precisely where it stayed. Being Christians who thought our main job was to get to heaven and drag as many people along with us as we could, social issues seemed like a temporal concern that might distract us from the real job of saving souls. So, I suspect my dad didn’t have the particular habits of mind necessary to see the need for social justice activism. “Taking to the streets” was never a tool in my dad’s theological toolkit.
But having been the generation raised in the aftermath of both of those seismic shifts in American history, it seems a shame that I can’t point to anything I remember him saying or doing that would have tipped his position one way or the other. I also sometimes wonder if I were a minister back then, whether I would have had the courage to take my place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, or marched with the protesters at Kent State.
Partly as a result of my ignorance about my father’s theological/philosophical position on such significant issues, and partly because I feel a responsibility now to stand with those who protest injustice, I have determined that my children will never have to wonder what it was their old man thought about marriage equality, or #BlackLivesMatter, or refugees, or gender equality, or Islamophobia, or treatment of undocumented workers, or transgender rights, or single-payer healthcare—or just about any other issue I can’t seem to shut up about. But that’s the point: I can’t shut up about these things because I think they’re vital to who I am as a person, as a father, and as a minister now myself.
Beyond the legacy I leave to my children, I feel a responsibility to the congregation I serve to tell them how it is I think that our faith requires expression. I want the people with whom I work to know I think our faith causes us to take a position on these social and political issues, not out of some misplaced sense of partisan loyalty but out of the conviction that my faith would mean nothing if it were not somehow expressed in the very world Jesus himself loved, and in which he lived and died, trying to model God’s intentions for how we are to live together.
When I think about what responsibility my clergy colleagues and I have in this time of social and political upheaval, I think about my father and my ignorance of his opinions on so many crucial questions. I think about how I might have responded in the moment, and it seems clear to me that I have a duty not only to speak my piece but to advocate and to work for a world that more nearly conforms to the one I see Jesus articulating in the Gospels. And the thing that I keep coming back to is that the world needs people who will take a stand against hatred and violence.
Here’s what I’ve come up with, distilled to its essence: If you’re a minister who’s convinced that if things get bad enough you’ll take a stand, the only interesting question left is whether or not you’ve already made a decision about what “bad enough” is going to look like. If you wait too long, your good intentions will only be a pathetic epitaph. The primary job of a minister is to tell the truth and then to teach others to tell it. If we were doing our job, this simple fact would make churches the seat of the resistance.
If you’re a minister—hell, if you’re a person of faith—nobody should ever have to wonder when you’re gone whether you stood against injustice when you had the chance.
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