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.