Everybody knows that if you want to have a peaceful conversation you avoid talking about religion and politics. For whatever reason, these topics make people crazy. It seems nearly impossible to have a conversation about religion or politics without it being reduced to a verbal cage fight. I know this firsthand. Once, at a family reunion the conversation turned to politics and two hours later I was accused of endorsing totalitarianism because I said some governmental regulation of business might be a good thing. The moral of the story is, if you like your friends and family, politics and religion are topics better left for the yelling pundits.
All that to say, bringing up Houston is a dangerous idea.
In the last week Houston has managed to combine politics and religion into an explosive concoction with the potential to destroy any Thanksgiving meal. If you haven’t heard, in May of this year the Houston City Council passed an anti-discrimination ordinance called HERO. While Houston is a large city, this is actually the first anti-discrimination bill the city has ever passed. It provides protection against discrimination based on race, religion, gender, and sexuality. After the bill was passed, a coalition led by a number of pastors and church groups collected 50,000 signatures to petition a referendum of HERO. However, upon inspection the city determined a large number of signatures were disqualified because the paperwork was improperly filled out. This resulted in the petition not having enough signatures to get the referendum on the ballot. Opponents of HERO then filed a lawsuit against the city to argue the signatures were, in fact, valid and thus the referendum should be placed on the ballot. In response to the lawsuit the city filed a subpoena that targeted five Houston pastors involved in the collection of the signatures. While the subpoena should have been targeting documents related to the the collection of the signatures, it contained language that was overly broad requesting, “All speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
And that’s when people got upset.
Pastors who were subpoenaed referred to the Mayor as a “bully” and urged other pastors to “challenge government authorities – to dare them to come into their churches and demand their sermons.” The Family Research Council started a petition for people to sign to show their solidarity with the Houston pastors. Russell Moore urged pastors to not comply with the subpoena because, “the preaching of the church of God does not belong to Caesar, and we will not hand it over to him.” Eric Metaxas urged Christians across the country to send the mayor’s office Bibles.
But if you are not a pastor, you can and should be involved. PLEASE SEND A BIBLE to the Houston Mayor’s Office. It is filled with sermons…
— Eric Metaxas (@ericmetaxas) October 18, 2014
Clearly, the city made a mistake in subpoenaing the sermons of pastors. The majority of these sermons were probably online making this completely unnecessary. And, for the sake of clarity, let me say that a violation of the separation of church and state should be guarded against. But, and this is the point I want to stress, we should expect that when someone – including a church – sues the city that the city will seek to defend itself and use the law to do so. Jesus said, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” A modern translation might be, “If you sue politicians, don’t be surprised when they subpoena you.”
The bigger question for Christians in this is, “How do we faithfully witness to Christ in the midst of situations like this?” It is important that we spend time thinking about that question because this will not be the last time Christians are put in this type of situation. Since the beginning of America, Christians have enjoyed a position of privilege and influence. With Judeo-Christian ethics being the norm, Christians not only felt at home, but were an active part of shaping culture.
But all that is changing.
As our society becomes increasingly post-Christian, the influence of Christianity is waning. Christians are feeling marginalized. Many are even buying into the narrative that Christians in America are being persecuted.
What if there is another story?
I wonder if what we are experiencing is really persecution, or simply, the feeling of no longer being as influential as we once were. Our opinion used to matter. Our beliefs shaped culture. People used to listen to what we had to say. That isn’t happening any longer. Our voice is now one voice among many, no longer favored but given equal weight. But, because of the position of privilege we used to enjoy, it feels like we aren’t being heard. It feels like we aren’t being considered. It feels like we are marginalized, but in reality, maybe we are being treated as equals. Which makes me wonder, do we, the church, know how to exist in our culture when we do not have political and cultural power?
Many Christian are responding to the cultural change with fear and hyperbole. The base is worked into a fervor with threats of not being able to preach the gospel, losing non-profit status, or threats of becoming Nazi Germany. Nothing gets people into motivated like a good ‘ol fear-based likening to Nazi Germany.
What is clear to me is that, by and large, much of the Christian response of last week was unhelpful. Flooding the Houston Mayor’s office with Bibles may seem like a good idea, but is it really helpful? Is it a faithful witness to our call as ministers of reconciliation? Or is it an example of “You push me and I’ll push you back” under the guise of a political stunt? As humans, our first instinct is to fight back and to stand up for our rights, but as Christians it is more important that we ask ourselves, “Is our current response a move toward peace and loving our neighbors?”
As ministers of reconciliation Christians should be the least anxious people in an anxious situation. After all, we believe in the sovereign God who created all things, hold all things together, and watches over all things. We cast our anxiety on him, because he cares for us. We are to act in hope, and good faith, and good will towards others. Politics is anxious enough. It doesn’t need us adding to the already palpable anxiety by being overly reactive and fearful.
Do not hear me saying that we should not diligently and persistently advocate for protection of the First Amendment and separation of Church and State. We should, but how we protect that right – for ourselves and for others – matters. Anxious responses that exacerbate the situation and fan the flames of enmity should be avoided at all cost. Using the situation to propagate a narrative of victimhood is not Christlike.
Instead, it would do us well to respond by remembering the words of Paul. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”