We live in the sort of mediated age that no one could have imagined 2000 years ago. Today, we have access to the thoughts and feelings of people around the world.This has opened up a market of angry rants that often make their way to my in-box in the form of a forwarded email from you. Though Jesus did not function in a world where this free-flow of ideas was possible, I am called to be seek to embody his vision in this age. So, I feel the need to offer a pastoral word in response to the email you forwarded to me.
One caveat. I have political opinions. If you’ve interacted with me often, you likely know what they are. I’m pretty transparent. My general political opinions are NOT the opinions of a qualified policy, diplomacy, or legal expert. They are just my opinions. If I have ever given you the impression that I believe my general political opinions were somehow holier than yours because I am ordained, please accept my apology. This is not what I believe.
I also do not believe that my work is politically neutral. Sometimes people dismiss the political opinions of pastors believing that we should keep the realms of governing and God separate. I would like to gently challenge that perception. There are issues that I as a pastor do feel obligated–in my pastoral role–to speak out about. There does need to be a distinction between my general political opinions and my more qualified professional opinions that derive from my faithful, pastoral discernment.
I went to a family practice physician several years. He let me know that he was “to the right of Attila the Hun.” I knew he was exaggerating. I’ve listened to Attila’s podcast and there’s no one to the right of him. I had been going to this doctor for over a decade when he retired. He was a nice guy and we were making friendly conversation when he told me what he thought. I did not confuse my physician’s political opinions with his opinions about my health. His diagnoses of my bronchitis were qualified opinions. His attitudes toward liberals were not. He is entitled to them. They just don’t persuade me. I did ask him a question regarding a church’s sharing prayer concerns and HIPA (Health Information Protection Act) rules. He shared with me his judgment. It was a “political” opinion as it had to do with policy and law. It was a political opinion he was qualified to give. I would ask for the same understanding. There are legal and political issues that I am qualified to address as a pastor. There are laws and practices of every government that are so opposed to the will of God that I feel the need to speak out. We probably need clearer signals to clarify the difference between the moments when I’m just giving my opinion as a citizen and my opinions as a professional. Still it’s not as simple as keeping the two separate.
Now back to the email you forwarded me. You know the one where the really insightful but angry person gave the speech, wrote the blog, or had the conversation that put the people you find frustrating in their place.
I have tried to engage the content of these before. I have spent time trying to do some fact-checking. I once reached out to a Country radio station-manager to seek clarification about song that was supposedly being shut out from the airwaves because it was too patriotic. Turns out, the station-manager explained, that wasn’t the reason. The country band’s own management chooses which songs to release for radio play and the song that everyone loved wasn’t the song they chose to push. I have tried providing counter-evidence. I recently saw pie chart that purported show the difference between the federal government’s welfare spending relative to our military spending. I went looking for better evidence and did my best to wade through the explanations given about how the federal budget actually works and why the graphic was wrong. I have tried revealing the accuracy of the source. So much of what comes through as forwarded emails are not correctly attributed. I have tried interrogating the logic beneath the emails and other content. I have decided that I must stop doing this.
I must stop not because I am unqualified. At times, I’m very qualified. I must stop this form of argumentation because you know me as a pastor. I am either your pastor or I am a pastor you’ve come in contact with. So, I need to treat your email within the context of that pastoral relationship. In that regard, I have two questions.
First, have you felt that I have pushed my political opinions on you or the church in a heavy-handed and irresponsible way? If so, please be specific with me about where I’ve done that. If it’s just been a matter of my general opinions leaking out–Please accept my apology. I recognize that I can be guilty of that, but I also don’t think that it’s appropriate for me to present my opinions as though they were truth from on-high.
If it’s been a situation where I feel I have expressed a qualified opinions as a pastor about a political issue, please let’s have an open conversation about this. My professional opinions can still be wrong, troublesome, and unsettling, but I would hope we could have healthy conversation about that. In short, if you forwarded me the email in order to indirectly address something between the two of us, I’d ask you to simply find a way to have a direct conversation.
Second, are you as angry as the forwarded email makes you seem? Anger is a serious spiritual issue. Jesus said, “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment and if you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to the counsel, and if you say, ‘you fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” Matthew 5:22-23
. These are challenging words that have convicted me over and over again. This particular section the Sermon on the Mount has several practically impossible commands about anger, lust, divorce, oaths, tolerance and forgiveness. I believe these teachings have to be counter-balanced with what Jesus also said about God’s grace and forgiveness. Still, Jesus recognized the destructive potential of anger and harsh words. The book of Ephesians says, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not make room for the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27
). Anger is a serious pastoral issue. I have yet to see an email reduce people’s anger. In fact, I have sent emails where I hoped to reduce people’s anger. In my head, they were carefully worded and soft-spoken but they were heard the opposite way.
If the anger reflected in the email you forwarded is an anger you feel, let’s talk. If you sense a common theme, you’re right. It is: let’s talk. You willingly share with me what’s going on with you physically. We recognize that I have no medical qualifications that permit me to respond to your symptoms or their causes. We talk about your physical health because it impacts your spiritual state. I see political anger in much the same way. Just as I cannot change your physical health and am not qualified to give my opinions about your physical health, I am usually not qualified to try to persuade you to think differently about government. Like my response to your physical health challenges, I hold your political frustrations in prayer, I will seek to better understand what you feel is being threatened and I will join you in seeking ways to act redemptively in the face of what is happening politically.
Part of that means maintaining a healthy relationship to your church family. One of the reasons I find your forwarded email troubling is that I see the other church members with whom you shared it. Undoubtedly you sent it to some people you know agree with you. Still, it has the potential to foster divisiveness as it creates a collective understanding about those who are politically different than your tribe. It creates an “other” within the church. You may not be aware that when you characterize people who disagree with you as idiots (or other name-calling), or as you imply that the outspoken adherents to the views with which you disagree should sit down and shut up, as you circulate the very humorous caricature of politicians, and as you vicariously vent your frustration through the words of another, you are putting distance between yourself and others in the congregation. I am aware of the people in the congregation who hold the views ridiculed, voted for the politicians caricatured, and feel the heat from this person’s venting. I am aware because I read the emails they’ve forwarded to me, spoken to them about what they’re seeing on the news, and heard them talk about their political opinions. Let me be clear, the church should be a place of dialogue and discourse. It should model how people can disagree while remaining in covenant relationship to one another. Again, it means forwarding (or posting, tweeting, clipping) less and talking more. I gladly read things sent to me by members as they are frequently insightful and informative. It’s because I take the emails you send me seriously that I am concerned by some of what you’ve sent to me. Some of these emails contain more heat than light, and more derision than information. I want what you are reading and share with me to elevate my understanding and perspective. Too often, it makes me concerned about how positions in the world are creating camps within the church. Divisiveness in the church is deadly (see Matthew 18:1-20
; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
; 11:17-22; Philippians 2:1-11
Let me make some suggestions:
- Let people clarify their positions for themselves. Many of the angry, ranting forwards are quite simply inaccurate. They summarize their opponents’ positions in ways that their opponents would not recognize. Use the Internet to its full potential by engaging in some independent fact-checking and follow-up especially with regard to those items with which you agree. A bad argument made for the sake of a good cause does more harm than good.
- Assess what’s connecting with you. Do you find yourself learning something new or is what you’re reading simply confirming what you already believe? There’s nothing wrong with finding someone who gives you a vocabulary to express what you believe, but we should remember that there’ still a counter-perspective that deserves to be heard. If it touches your mind, great; if it raises your blood-pressure, ask questions. Lots of questions.
- Look for angles. Anger is profitable. There’s an old saying that goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” There is a class of media professionals who have turned that into a marketing strategy. They know that if they can creatively attack the people you find frustrating, you’ll regard them as “friends” meaning you’ll listen, you’ll tune in, maybe you’ll buy a book, listen to a radio show or podcast or visit a website. At the end of the line, they aren’t interested in participating with you in creating a better world, they want you to be their customer. If the problem they’re ranting about improves, they lose a source of income. Somehow the story of Paul and Silas in Philippi seems relevant here (Acts 16:16-40).
- Look for hope. Hope is not wishful thinking. Hope is the spiritual discipline of keeping our eyes open to the ways we can participate in God’s kingdom-work in this world. Does what you’re reading offer you a sense that you can do something different to improve things and join God in redeeming work? If not, let it go.
In the end, our relationship is not defined by your politics or mine. It is defined by our shared faith in Jesus Christ and the extent to which we can mutually encourage each other to greater faithfulness to his call to serve, bless, and bear witness in the world.