“Tell It Like It Is”: How Pastors Can Respond to Election Day

Let me talk to pastors for a moment. (Though their congregants might want to listen in.)

Sisters and brothers – Now that candidate Trump has become president-elect Trump, I know that many of you are struggling with how you’re going to preach tomorrow morning. Unsettled yourselves, you know that you’ll soon look out at the expectant faces of people feeling a complicated mixture of emotions, from joy to sorrow, anger to hope. You might feel caught between the temptation to speak a relevant word to a fraught situation, and your reluctance to bring politics into the pulpit.

No doubt, you should lead us in praying for our new president. As long as people have followed Jesus Christ as Lord, they have prayed for Caesar. To this day, most do so in political systems far less free and far more violent than ours. And President Trump will need as much divine assistance as his forty-four predecessors did.

No doubt, you should call for unity and reconciliation. Our churches mirror our divided society, and Christian unity is essential to our witness. And as I once preached myself — at the memorial service for a much-loved political science professor whose counsel I dearly miss right now — “by grace, we replace estrangement with reconciliation. What else is our mission but this?”

But by itself, a message of unity and reconciliation is not sufficient right now. And we can pray for those in power while still speaking truth to them.

So let me remind you what you already know. Let me repeat what I wrote five months ago: that what the church most needs to do right now is to be the church.

You must “tell it like it is,” not in the manner of a craven demagogue but by using three modes of “frank speech” prescribed by the Bible and deeply embedded in Christian tradition.

Drawing of Billy Sunday preaching (1915)
That said, you don’t necessarily need to resemble Billy Sunday, illustrated here preaching in 1915 – Creative Commons (Boston Public Library)

You can read the full original post here, but let me briefly pull out and reconfigure the three key ideas:

Speak prophetically

First, please

speak the word in such a way as to contrast how it is — and how we want it to be — with how it should be. While the frank speech of the demagogue is a tool of the powerful, the frank speech of the prophet cries out for the powerless. While the narcissistic leader cannot tolerate criticism, the prophet cannot tolerate injustice.

By all means, pray that the ugly rhetoric of the campaign will somehow give way to a presidency that uses power for the good of all Americans. But as much as in June, the church in November and in all the weeks, months, and years to come should still “not hesitate to rebuke the racial animus and resentment that correlates strongly with Trump support.”

If nothing else, help train our ears to listen to the discomfiting words coming from those we tend to ignore or silence. (That’s probably especially true if you’re a white Christian preaching to white Christians — the American church’s oldest echo chamber.) As I wrote once about the prophetic legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Most of us aren’t like Jonah, sent out to ‘cry out against’ cities whose ‘wickedness has come up before [the Lord]’ (Jon 1:1-2, NRSV). At our best, we’re more like the people of one such place, Nineveh, who ‘listened, and trusted God’ (Jon 3:5, The Message).”

Confess our sins

Second, please lead us in confessing our shortcomings, as individuals and communities. As I wrote earlier, failing to do so is

as dangerous as failing to speak prophetically. For “[i]f we say that we have no sin” — or, perhaps, if we leave unsaid that we sin — “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us… If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8, 10). I think that danger is particularly acute when responding to Trump. Precisely because so much of what he says is so abhorrent, he becomes a mirror in which we start to see ourselves as righteous.

I know that’s a big part of what I’ve been wrestling with since Tuesday night: in what ways am I confusing smug self-righteousness with righteous anger? (Perhaps this post just underscores my own flaws. Forgive me if I sound like a Pharisee while claiming the name of Jesus.)

But “[i]f we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). Which (again, as in May) leads us into the most important way the church tells it like it is…

Proclaim the Gospel

Finally, it seems to me that Jesus gives you three words of encouragement to share with people who badly need to hear good news:

1. Proclaim that there exists — already and not yet — “a kingdom that belongs to the poor and persecuted, not an empire run by the wealthy and powerful. Not an empire of greatness, but a kingdom like ‘the smallest of all seeds,’ whose Lord is no strongman, but a suffering servant.” The good news is not that America might become “great again,” but that Christ is King and “of his kingdom — unlike every empire — ‘there will be no end’ (Lk 1:33).”

Grünewald, Resurrection
Matthias Grünewald, “Resurrection,” from the Isenheim Altarpiece

2. Proclaim the hope of the Resurrection. For if “Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, then how can we live in fear of economic change, immigration, or even terrorism? If Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, then why should we yearn for false security founded on hatred and injustice?”

3. Most importantly, engage in “the Bible’s least likely mode of ‘telling it like it is'” and “proclaim the grace of a God who loves and forgives us, a reality that few truly want to hear.”

Here too, I suspect that we’re a lot like Jonah,

who resisted God’s call to prophesy to Nineveh not because he was afraid to call out sin, but because he couldn’t countenance the possibility of grace: “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning,” the prophet angrily prayed to God, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jon 4:2).

But if all the Church had to offer were prophecy and confession, it would not be the Church. It would not be telling it like it is, according to the upside-down kingdom logic of a gracious God who brings new life out of the most unlikely of circumstances.

Thank you for being faithful to your divine callings. Thank you for the years you have sacrificed in training and serving. Thank you for your patience with us as we impose impossible expectations on you.

May the words of your mouths and the meditations of your hearts be pleasing to God, your rock and your redeemer.

One thought on ““Tell It Like It Is”: How Pastors Can Respond to Election Day

  1. Chris,

    Thank you for this post. We pastors need to be reminded of the Gospel we live and preach every once in awhile. Maybe more so at times like these when the temptation is strong to not preach the grace and love of God.

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