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May 9, 2019

The Conscience of the State: Voices of Faith Leaders Needed in Public Square — the Rev. George Scott

Remarks given at the concluding ceremony of the Clergy Leadership Program, May 6, 2019, at Messiah College

Congratulations to all of you and your families on completion of the Clergy Leadership Program of Central PA.  It’s an honor to be selected for such a distinguished program, and it is a tribute to each of you that you successfully completed it in the midst of family, ministry, and other obligations.  Again, congratulations!

It is a privilege for me to address such a gifted group of faith leaders.  Thank You to Doctors Jake and Rhonda Jacobsen for the invitation and opportunity to be here tonight.  Jake invited me to speak on a topic related to pastoral calling, especially its connections to the social and spiritual flourishing of the broader community.

Now conventional wisdom tells us that there are two things we should never talk about at dinner:  Religion and politics.  So tonight, I’m naturally going to talk about religion and politics. Specifically, about the interface between religion and politics in the public discourse.  And even more specifically, to ask what role should leaders of faith communities play in today’s increasingly divided political culture?

As Jake mentioned, I ran for Congress last year in South-Central PA.  But I’m not here tonight as a candidate for office, nor in an effort to convince any of you to run for office.  Rather, I’m here as a person of faith.  And I’m here to make the case for just how important it is for faith leaders like you to speak out in the public forum.  Your voice is needed – not just as congregational leaders, but as community leaders.  And your voice is needed now more than ever.

The Rev. Dr. MLK once said: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” (A Knock at Midnight)

There is a desperate need for perspectives of faith and theology in our dialogue on issues of public policy.  For example, so much of our political discussion is trapped in a mindset of scarcity.  It says there is only one pie to go around, so if your piece gets bigger than mine must get smaller.  We need a different perspective, a theology of abundance, to be brought into the public square.

Or take Dr. Donald Brown, who is a Scholar in Residence at Widener University’s Commonwealth Law School.  Dr. Brown is an expert on climate change and sustainable development, yet he has recognized the absolute necessity of framing public discussion on environmental issues not simply in terms of science or cost, but in terms of ethics and morality.

So the question is how do we do this?  How do we, as faith leaders, speak out on public policy?  Because let’s face it, there are pretty significant risks when we speak out on issues that are political hot buttons, especially for pastors with congregations.

We may be criticized by members of our congregation and risk losing their support. We may be accused of violating the boundaries between church and state.  We may even be charged with violating the Johnson Amendment – which is only applicable if you use your pastoral office to endorse a particular party or candidate.

But none of those risks outweigh the need for your voice to be heard.  Again, your voice as a faith leader is needed.  The prophetic task is to tell hard truths that people do not want to hear. And there is great risk in not speaking out.  If we do not challenge, if we are silent, then we are effectively supporting whatever the situation may be.  Our silence signifies our consent.

There is no single way to speak out into the public arena – you certainly don’t have to run for political office! But perhaps we can find an approach that combines Barnabas with John the Baptist – in other words, a prophetic critique done with an encouraging spirit. A path that is both confrontational and loving.  Difficult, but not impossible.  As Rev William Barber puts it, “You have to bring to bear the sacred text in the public square.”

Of course, as faith leaders, we know that the best place to start is with prayer.  With listening to the Spirit as it speaks into our hearts and through the voices of those around us.  You may feel called to speak out on a particular issue as a way to pursue the social and spiritual flourishing of the broader community.

Because there is no shortage of issues, is there?!

–       Caring for creation, especially addressing climate change;
–       Countering the increasing tide of hatred and acts of violence;
–       Raising awareness of the stain of discrimination in all its forms;
–       Insisting on the need to be hospitable to the stranger.

Having said all that, before we launch our voice into the public arena, we may want to consider the advice of the famous Old Testament scholar, Dr. Walter Brueggeman.  In an interview done back in December by Krista Tippett, Brueggeman suggests that perhaps it is better to not dwell on specific issues, but rather to go “underneath the issues that preoccupy people to the more foundational assumptions that can only be gotten at in elusive language”.

Brueggeman says that “the institutional church has been pre-occupied with issues…and when we do that, we are robbed of transformative power.  Because then it’s just ideology versus ideology, [and] that does not produce very good outcomes for anyone.” Instead, he advocates for the use of poetic language that soars beyond a particular issue and can be heard as non-partisan, language that is transformative and visionary, language that paints a picture of what God desires, language that reaches out beyond what we normally use.  As one recent Christian Century commentary put it, “Prophets don’t predict what is next.  They look at the world as it is, and, through their God-suffused imagination, see it transformed.”

My friends, regardless of the approach you choose, I will again insist that your voice is needed.  Your voice must be heard!  Because as Rabbi Yossi New said recently in the aftermath of a deadly attack on a synagogue in California, “It’s very important to remember the power of the spoken word – it can create, and it can destroy.”

May your words be words of creation, words that bring life and love, not just to your congregations and communities, but to our nation and to the world.  Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight, congratulations again on your achievement, and my prayers for God’s blessings upon your future endeavors.

The Rev. George Scott is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in East Berlin, Lower Susquehanna Synod. 

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