Like most of America, last Tuesday night I sat in my living room and watched the election results roll in. Long before it was clear who was going to win, one thing was obvious: America is deeply divided. Not between inconsequential preferences like Coke or Pepsi (Pepsi), burgers or hotdogs (burgers, with bacon), but along the critical fault lines of rich and poor, white and non-white, educated and uneducated, young and old, white-collar and blue-collar, male and female, urban and rural. Pick your demographic, that’s where America is divided.
I’m a pastor, called to the ministry of reconciliation. Election night sobered me with the weight of my calling. I summed my feelings up in the following quick tweet as the evening unfolded: “Pastors, we have our work cut out for us.”
Truth is, I’m not sure how to do that work. Over the last week, I’ve talked with a number of pastors from across the country and my conversations affirm I’m not alone. Despite being in different contexts and among different voting blocks, pastors are left having to pick up the pieces of a divisive election season. We’re tasked with inviting people to the table of the Lord, the table that represents the crumbled dividing wall, yet we’re in a country set on erecting walls. The division in our country is in our pews, and yet, this is our task.
Taking Time to Listen
Sunday, as I stood in front of my congregation, I saw people who voted for Trump and people who voted for Hillary and people who voted for neither. I saw people who were celebrating and people who were afraid. I saw people who wanted people to rejoice with them and others who wanted someone to mourn with. I stood in front of my congregation, seeing all that, and, at the same time, am a person who has my own reaction to this election. I have my own opinions and thoughts and fears and processing to do. For all those reasons I say, “I don’t know how to do this.”
In the last week, I’ve listened to those who voted for president-elect Trump. I’ve heard their concerns about supreme court nominations; I’ve identified with their advocacy of the unborn; I’ve noted the fear of loss as America’s values continue to change; I’ve had my eyes opened to the working-class poor who have felt ignored and whose only protest is their vote.
I’ve listened to those who didn’t vote for Mr. Trump. I’ve heard from those who are genuinely afraid; I’ve mourned with people of color who feel that half of America just rejected them – or at least said, through their vote, said they don’t care about them; I’ve identified with those concerned that this election has done irreparable damage to the label ‘evangelical.’
People have told me that America has been through worse. And we have, for sure. Past elections have been just as troublesome. Rutherford B. Hayes comes to mind. While it’s true that America has come through turbulent times in the past, not everyone came through it okay. The country came through the scandal of the backroom deal that gave Hayes the White House, but Reconstruction efforts in the South halted, and peace for the country came on the back of African-Americans.
I’m left wondering, “Who will pay for peace this time around?”
And what will peace look like?
The danger is to preemptively cry, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. I can feel my conflict-averse self wanting to downplay the seriousness of the wound in America’s religious soul by treating the wound as if it is paper cut when it is, instead, a deep laceration of the heart. I don’t want to be a prophet. I don’t want to be a peacemaker. I want to be a peacekeeper, despite serving a Messiah who was anything but.
There is no peace. If we want peace, we’re going to have to make it.
A Table in the Desert
Making peace is not peaceful work. It is toil-filled, bloody-your-knuckles work as swords are beat into ploughshares. It’s thankless work, bringing enemies – Zealots and tax-collectors, elites and deplorables – to the same table to break bread. It’s work I fear will cost me everything. Peace doesn’t come without a cost. Jesus showed us that the mediator pays the cost of reconciliation; the one who stands in the middle, hears the laments, pains, sins, frustrations, hopes, and needs of both sides and says, “Come to the Lord’s table,” is the one who pays the debt.
There’s a big debate about who should be reconciled to who. Some say that the losers need to get with the program and accept the new reality. In essence, reconciliation will happen when “they” come to the winners table. Others say that the winners need to offer a peace-offering by showing up at the table of the losers. Neither will work, not in this context. Truth is, the oppressed are always expected to travel further to the table of reconciliation. What makes our current context so difficult is that, according to what I’m hearing, both sides feel oppressed by a system stacked against them. Right or wrong, these feelings are present. What’s a pastor to do? With legitimate concern on both sides, where and how does reconciliation happen so that the divide is closed and the wound properly treated?
For this reason, I don’t believe reconciliation will happen at the winner’s table or the loser’s table, but at the table of the Lamb. This is the table pastors are called to host.
Notice where pastors will be: at that table outside of either tribes camp. More than ever, I believe pastors are called to be the voices crying out in the wilderness.
Most of the time, when we hear those words we think of John the Baptist. Both the gospels of Matthew and Luke describe John as the one the prophet Isaiah spoke about when he said,
“A voice of one calling in the
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for
The syntax of the sentence makes it seem as if the voice calling out is out in the desert. But if you read the passage being quoted from the original passage in Isaiah 40:3, the syntax changes.
“A voice of one calling:
‘In the desert prepare
the way for the Lord.’”
Notice, the voice isn’t necessarily in the desert. Rather, the voice is calling for those who are already in the desert to prepare a way for the Lord. Pastors will be most prophetic when they’re working in the desert.
Never before in pastoral ministry I have felt more in the desert.
Yet, it’s in the desert that “every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low.” It’s in the desert that reconciliation will happen. But it’s lonely in the desert. It’s arid. No one wants to go there. I’m struck by the fact that, as a pastor, the prophetic calling I’m given is to invite people to a place they don’t want to go.
Being this kind of pastor will cost me, my pastoral colleagues, and all peacemakers. People want someone who will make them comfortable, who tickle their ears by normalizing abhorrent behaviors, who leave in place the curtain covering over the principalities and powers, and who does not ask them to hear the laments of the oppressed. This is the work of the prophet. True pastoral work is always prophetic.
The Pastoral Work is Prophetic Work
Unfortunately, many will perceive this work as partisan. People assume political motives where they do not exist. True, some pastors give to Caesar what is the Lord’s by using the pulpit to wax political. But many of the faithful shepherds resist such urges pointing instead to the upside-down kingdom of Jesus. Still, many American Christians would prefer to keep politics out of the church. But that’s impossible. The proclamation that Jesus is Lord – that he is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lord’s – is a political statement. The Kingdom of God is an alternative political reality existing within the kingdoms of our day. For this reason, Christians live as dual citizens. That said, our loyalty should not be equally split. A pastors job is not to make good citizens of the kingdoms of this world, but to remind people that they belong to kingdom that will not end and whose king rules with love, mercy, grace, and justice.
Admittedly, I must overcome my own biases and prejudices to do the work of reconciliation. In that vein, I’ve committed myself to stepping out of my echo chamber to listen to those who I don’t understand. But, that pastoral work is mine. It doesn’t belong to everyone. I do not believe that it is the responsibility of the Latino man or Asian woman told to “Go back to your country” to understand the one shouting those words. Nor do I believe it is the West Virginia coal minor’s responsibility to understand the Harvard graduate well-versed in systemic racism and international trade agreements. Hearing both sides is my responsibility. And it’s my responsibility to set the table and extend the invitation.
What does this look like practically? I think it looks like creating intentional spaces of listening and sharing. Spaces where people can come together in counter-cultural ways. Our current public square is no longer an embodied space, but it is a disembodied social network where we only interact with the words on the screen and not the person who typed them. Pastors doing the work of reconciliation should create space to incarnate a perspective with a name, face, and story; where we remove blame from a faceless scapegoat so we can recover the humanity of the one we’ve made an enemy. This space will be tense. It will force us to confront ourselves. And it won’t feel safe. But the pastor must make every effort to make it so.
I ask that you be patient. We’re entering a new time. Something has shifted in America. Pastors haven’t done their prophetic work in this context at this time. We’re learning. The good ones will make you uncomfortable even as they make mistakes. If they need correcting, do it gently. If what they say troubles you, take them for coffee and try to understand what they see and where their heart is. Be gracious, because we’ll make mistakes. But let them do this difficult, painful, hard work. Don’t make them more anxious than they already are. Because America needs them.
And don’t let them do it alone.
Pastors, be brave. Creation is groaning for the revealing of the sons and daughters of God. If we’ll stand up and stand in the divide, I’ll believe we’ll experience the hope of Isaiah 40. “The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all humankind together will see it.”