On Faith, Politics, and Limits for the Church

by Rob Hammock

Being a Chicago kid growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, one couldn’t help being broadsided with the power and influence of politics on a city. When I was 5 years old, Mayor Richard J. Daley died. The “Boss” had presided over the city of Chicago for 21 years until his death. Through his control of the Cook County Democratic Party and the Mayor’s Office, he had successfully ruled the city and bent much of it to his will. However, being a South Side kid where most of the Black community lived, I had seen the limits of Daley’s power and knew that his influence was not always positive to the friends and family living in and surrounding my neighborhood. So, in 1983, at just the age of 12, after two terms removed from the late Mayor Daley, my mom and I became involved in the campaign of Harold Washington to become the city’s first African American mayor.

Despite being a seeming underdog in the Democratic primary facing an incumbent mayor and the aspiring son of the late Mayor Daley, Washington won the primary and subsequently became the mayor. Part of my impetus for being involved was the voice and witness of the Black church on the South Side. Churches and pastors had organized to promote someone they felt would fight for their interests. I saw Harold Washington and his part of the Democratic party as a champion for the underclass, the marginalized, and “the least of these”.

Five years later, when I was 16, I had my first taste of ecclesial politics. My mom and I were traveling to Texas for a couple of college visits. During that planned time, it also happened that the Southern Baptist Convention (“SBC”) was being held in San Antonio. Considering the timing and proximity, we attended the convention as official “messengers” representing our church. I was in for a rude faith awakening. My understanding of Jesus and my faith had come under the tutelage of a small, mixed Baptist congregation, where I had been baptized by a woman pastor. What I quickly learned at the convention was that there was no place for my brand of theology. Apparently, my naïve thinking of loving my neighbor in an urban environment with a woman pastor was anathema to the SBC.

The first evening I remember hearing the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, W.A. Criswell, a key leader in the conservative takeover of the SBC, trumpet against the evils of liberalism. My Chicago church had been hanging on within the SBC as a moderate voice, and it would continue to do so for a number of years, but that was the beginning of the end of my life as a Southern Baptist. Without yet fully comprehending the alleged issues and “heresies” at stake according to the conservatives, I understood the desire for control and power. The legacy of “Boss” Daley had shown me what power-wielding influence and coercion were, and this was it. I was done with Baptist life.

But, despite that experience, I somehow doubled-down for Jesus. As I finished high school and college, I began to voraciously read to understand what the conservative takeover was about and why women and liberals were supposedly evil. I worked my way through reading about the theological gymnastics one would have to work through to fight the battle over the word “inerrancy”. I studied Paul and his letters to see how people came to the conclusion that women’s roles in the church should be limited such that they shouldn’t preach or have authority over a man. An undergraduate degree in Religion and a Master of Divinity later, I was left with the position that these battles were much more about maintaining control and power than they were about following Jesus and loving your neighbor. Reading tomes on the inerrancy of scripture and the limited place of women, I couldn’t square the intellectual gymnastics with my simple understanding that all of the law and the prophets could be summed up in love God and love your neighbor.

My desire for deeper theological understanding imbued with an underlying simplicity is perhaps why I was first drawn to the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Considering the voluminous nature of his works in Church Dogmatics, uttering the word simplicity alongside his name might bring a raised eyebrow. Yet, it was the story of an encounter with Barth at Rockefeller Chapel in Chicago in the 60’s that piqued my interest. The story, somewhat validated, somewhat questioned, was that a questioner asked Barth to sum up his theology in one sentence. Barth’s response was a proud Sunday School teacher’s dream, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Regardless of the story’s ultimate veracity, this gem pushed me forth to learn more from a man that seemed to want to thread the needle of simple faith and deep thought.

As I read more and more Barth, I was increasingly intrigued by him because of his description of “Evangelical Theology” and his context of working with German Christians. Despite my moving away from my SBC roots, I still longed to hold on to some connection to “evangelical” faith. Barth showed me a path: “Evangelical theology is modest theology, because it is determined to be so by its object, that is, by him who is its subject.” (Evangelical Theology: An Introduction). In its simplest meaning from the Greek, evangelical translates to “good message”. This was good news to me indeed. And, reading about Barth’s use of it outside of an American context, I began to see how the American cultural and political context had warped its meaning.

However, the writing that he was involved in that influenced me as much as any was “The Theological Declaration of Barmen”. This document was written in 1934 by representatives of the Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches of Germany that had organized in Barmen, Germany to bear witness over and against the larger German Church’s increasing alignment with Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism.* The following section helped me to more fully understand and caution me on the limits of politics as a vehicle of faithful action for the church. We are called to be faithful to God in Jesus Christ regardless of who is in political control and not succumb to bastardizing temptations of our good news that come with a desire for power.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State…. The church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and Sacrament. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.
(“The Theological Declaration of Barmen”, 8.23-27)

“Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 11:15, NRSV)

* For reference, see the introductory essay along with the actual statement from “The Theological Declaration of Barmen”, Book of Confessions: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part I.

Robert Hammock recently rolled off of the Session after a 3-year term at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Although trained at Princeton Theological Seminary (MDIV), the last 20 years of his career have been focused on affordable housing and community development efforts, primarily in urban contexts. He remains active in a leadership role through his church’s development of affordable housing through the re-purposing of part of its campus.

Rob is also a part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and his writing focuses on faith, ministry, and community development.

How Jesus Organizes and Agitates to Build Movements

by Chris Dela Cruz

Why did Jesus take three years before going to Jerusalem at the end of his life?

If you believe the analysis of the Biblical timeline, Jesus spent the majority of time gathering folks to follow him, often one-by-one, often purposely telling them not to spread the word of his miracles. He hid from the religious leaders multiple times out of safety.

The Church, though, often depicts the primary work of Jesus happening in his dying on the cross. If that’s true, why did Jesus have to hide and wait? Couldn’t he just have stormed into Jerusalem, declared himself Messiah and thus angering the religious leaders right away who were already wanting to capture him, and get the killing over with?

He didn’t do this, though. Because Jesus was a community organizer.

Think about it. The heart of community organizing, especially in the Industrial Areas Foundation model started by Saul Alinsky, are hosting one-on-one and small group relational meetings to understand people’s passions and self-interests, then start gathering in followers (ie disciples?), and identify potential leaders who will then bring in more followers – can anything good come out of Nazareth? Come and see!

So Jesus spends the bulk of his time on earth bringing in more people into the movement. The Scriptures depict this movement amassing little by little over the next three years, and Jesus and the disciples running small “actions” – in community organizing speak, these are events that provoke and agitate the status quo to react – whether it be healings that transform individual lives or sermons that both inspire and cause increasingly hostility mostly from people in power. These actions serve to gather more followers and lead them finally to Jerusalem to challenge the religious and political powers in perhaps the biggest Action of all time.

Why did Jesus do it this way? Because in his ministry of organizing, Jesus was amassing power.

There are many who shy away from talking about “worldly” power, especially when it comes to Jesus. Too many people have been abused, misused, and oppressed by those in power, and they rightfully want nothing to do with that. Others, though, say they want nothing to do with power and preach a Jesus who gave up all power, who Philippians 2’d his way onto the Throne, who preached nothing but humbling yourself and submitting – a convenient sermon often from those who already have plenty of power to give.

But it’s not as simple as this.

Because, yes, Jesus did indeed empty himself, taking the form of a slave, and humbling himself to the point of death- even death on a cross. But it’s not like no one was watching.

Jesus spent three years gathering thousands of followers, mostly poor and outcast, the original Poor People’s Movement. Then Jesus gathered all these people all in one place! Jesus did this so that, in the event of, say, a world-altering sin-and-death-shattering resurrection, Jesus’ followers would have the long-standing relational bonds, common self-interest, and developed leaders (I mean Peter finally got his act together, right?) that could start and sustain a movement, and they were all in one place to witness it and spread it more easily.

In other words, Jesus made sure his movement would have Power, which in community organizing speak is organized people and organized money. 

And power it had. Jesus told them to wait a little while longer, just as any organizer knows there’s always logistics and last minute calls making sure leaders commit to recruiting x amount of folks, figuring out who the speakers are (ugh why does Peter ALWAYS get to speak), and of course making sure there’s food (so the women have to pay for this thing and feed them? No, beloved disciple, you’re on cooking duties today).

Then the Movement held its first action without Jesus, Pentecost. Tongues were on fire! Languages burst out like the wind! Peter brought down the house! And three thousand people committed to spreading the Word.

Sure, they had the advantage of the Holy Spirit. But it turns out every God-ordained movement has the same advantage.

This has always been the work of the Church, to continue and organize the Jesus Movement, bring in new followers and build leaders and power through relationships, and perform in-the-world-but-not-of-it actions to agitate the status quo and move the world toward change for the Kingdom. We just forgot what movements look like because we fell in love with institutional power. 

At the same time, though, the answer is not as simple as abandoning institutions, as they serve as a means to relational power. Jesus doesn’t force in brute power to oppress, but you think Jesus doesn’t want stuff to change on earth? The Church moving either to consolidate oppressive power or to run away from any chance at systemic impact are both in their own ways denials of the Narrow Path of Jesus Power to witness to God’s Reign of justice, mercy, and peace.

Local church communities have a ton of potential power and impact just by their very nature. If power is organized people and organized money, churches are one of the few entities in modern life that gather large, intergenerational groups of people -and their tithes! – all in one place, regularly, with built in strong relational bonds and common self-interest.  

But we squander it. Yes “service” projects are great, even excellent, but there’s potential for far greater impact that could do so much good if only congregations knew how much power they truly had. Also, bringing your church into the Christ-ordained work of organizing brings out leadership you never expected. You’ll find people that may not be able to preach or teach Sunday School or lead Bible studies or organize church picnics – and thus not get the usual attention and recognition for their gifts – but just by their relationships and influence within them, they can bring 17 people easily to a rally.

Hip-hop artist Ruby Ibarra raps “I don’t pray cuz I organize.” Perhaps there is a way to have both, like inhaling and exhaling. We just have to be open to the call.

Reverend Chris Dela Cruz is the new Associate Pastor of Youth, Young Adults, and Community Engagement at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon. He has written for Next Church, Presbyterian Outlook, and other outlets. Prior to being an ordained pastor, he was a journalist for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

Chris writes about the intersection of faith, cultural trends, and American life.