This past Sunday, I was honored to visit Lovely Mountain Baptist Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. As a visiting pastor, I was treated with great respect by Pastor Curtis and the entire church. Invited to give the prayer before the sermon, I stood at the pulpit and looked out at all the black faces (except one, my son’s), rejoicing to be in the family of God on a Sunday morning. Then the choir sang, and the pastor preached, and the Spirit of God poured joy out on all of us. I was reminded of how much happiness I have received over the years in the unity of the body of Christ.
However, I was also reminded of the cultural divide that remains. I became a Christian as a young man, with very little experience with evangelicals. From the start, I was bothered by the separation of the black and white Christians in America. The Bible I read says that we are family, all believers. However, in many ways, we are a dysfunctional family. For this reason, I determined early on to do what I could to “cross the color barrier.” After 28 years, I have learned many of the cultural and historical reasons that have caused us to inherit the division we see on Sundays throughout the land. However, I have never lost hope that God is healing and will continue to heal this divide.
While I was a guest at Lovely Mountain Baptist, one sister gave the announcements, and reminded everyone of the need to register to vote and to exercise their duty and right as Americans. As she spoke, I knew that back home in Pennsylvania, where I pastor, our church was also urging voter registration. In both the churches, the upcoming election is very important. In both churches, the members are urged to vote their consciences. However, the unspoken truth is that there is a very real political divide between black Christians and white Christians in America. Although no one told me so, I’m certain that most of the people at Lovely Mountain Baptist will be voting for Obama, and most of the people of Harvest Community Church in Kittanning, PA will be voting for Romney (Kittanning is small town in Western PA, that is very homogenous in ethnic make up: almost all white). This is not because the pastors of either church are telling their congregations how to vote. This is also not because Barak Obama is African American. Rather, the reality is that most white evangelicals vote republican most of the time, and most black evangelicals vote democrat most of the time.
As I sat there this Sunday, I agreed with the sister who was urging all the Christians to vote. I believe Christians should vote. I know some believe in passivism or conscientious objection to participation in government. But I do not. Paul teaches us to submit to authorities, as does Peter. Even Jesus tells us to give to Caesar what belongs to him. The great men of old, like Joseph and Daniel, taught us that God is in control of all authorities and we should submit even to those in government (provided they are not commanding that we worship other gods or sin against God). In our nation, our founding document begins with the words, “We the people...” Therefore, Christians, to my thinking, have an obligation to participate in the leadership of this nation. We are the people; we have a duty to participate.
However, as I sat there, another thing became clearer than ever --we can be unified in the church without waiting to acheive political unity. Cultural political differences must not be allowed to divide black Christians and white Christians. People who pay attention to politics normally have very strong opinions. People with strongly divergent opinions often have trouble enjoying the company of those who disagree. For believers, strong political opinions are allowable –but avoiding those who disagree is not, especially when we are talking about fellow Christians. In fact, we should enjoy, love, and fellowship without taking politics into account.
It is interesting to note that on the issues of abortion and gay-marriage –the hot-button social issues– black and white Christians, in large part, agree. Also, there is a great deal of agreement on issues like school choice. However, from a larger philosophical point of view, black Christians thinks the democrats to be more effective in bringing a positive society, and white Christians think the republicans are a better vehicle for change. Of course, these are broad categories. We know that some of both skin colors cross these lines; we also know that black and white voters have trouble trusting the government, and rightly so. Nevertheless, these broad voting patterns are indisputable.
What am I to do? What are we to do? My suggestion is keep strong opinions, but work even harder to cross color lines in the church, commit more purposely to love one another, and learn self control in our political dialogue. We don’t have to agree on all things in order to love one another and fellowship together. In fact, the more we do Jesus together, the more likely we are to create a new culture –one with more unity in many areas.
As a politically conservative Christian, I have often wished there was no need to invest in either party –the politicians make promises, but then almost never deliver. It has crossed my mind that a Christian party might be the solution. However, such a party would be futile. Why? Because not all Christians would agree on what the party should look like! Not all would join. Furthermore, if there is a Christian party, does that make everyone outside of it an “anti-Christ” party?
But what is most dangerous of all would be what I see happening too much in Christian circles already: We would be tempted to think that we could use the power of politics to advance the Kingdom of Heaven. The reality is otherwise. The truth is, the reason I could so easily rejoice with my brothers and sisters in South Carolina is because we are all citizens of the same Kingdom, awaiting our King. And we all agreed and continue to agree that His gospel message is the only real power on the earth. And we all agreed and continue to agree that when He comes, He will make all things right. And we all agreed and continue to agree that His great command is that His children love one another. In light of these things, how can the politics of this or any other nation divide us?
Let us settle in our minds that political agreement is in no way necessary for us to love and enjoy our brothers and sisters in unity. We must participate in the kingdoms of earth out of submission to our God. But we must never forget that the Kingdom of our God is not primarily a government; the Kingdom of God is first and foremost a household, a family. We have one Father, one faith, one church. I refuse to let anything as temporal as the politics of power-hungry men stand between me and my family.