Politics is the practice of negotiating how we will live together, laws are the (minimum) general rules of how we have decided to live together, and policies are the practical procedures and steps for living together. Politics, laws, and policies are how we arrange our relationships to one another as individuals and groups within this (US) society.
Christianity is all about relationships, and so it is imperative that we care about how our relationships are governed not only within our churches but in our society. Christians must engage in the kind of social movement organizing that leads to the implementation of laws and policies that allow all human beings to flourish in their relationships with one another.
And yet so often I hear Episcopalians claim that the church should not engage in politics, or endorse particular policies or amendments: unlike many evangelical Christians, Episcopalians should not endorse specific measure or policies; we are the church of the “via media” and so cannot take sides; the Gospel has many different interpretations and we cannot claim to speak for God; in order to remain welcoming to all, we cannot introduce political controversy into our midst.
In short, Episcopalian communities should be silent in the face of concrete political change.
But silence in the face of injustice and inequity only serves those already in power; it serves only the status quo; it perpetuates the injustices permitted (and created) by existing laws and policies. While silence on the part of the vulnerable may be justified because it is simply too dangerous to speak out, for those who may raise their voice without danger, silence is a luxury. Abstaining from political and social advocacy is the privilege of those who benefit from the status quo, those whose position, power, and wealth is preserved by existing laws and policies.
If I have learned anything by being the priest of a historically Black parish, it is this: social change, political change, is an essential aspect of living the gospel in the United States. This is a hard pill to swallow for white US Christians. In my Episcopalian circles, The Black Church on PBS was heavily viewed, and for many their take-away was the centrality of music for Black Christians. Rarely mentioned was that the music very often served the purpose of motivating, supporting, and advancing organized action for political change. For Christians who are not a part of the dominant political and social group, which in the U.S. means those who are not middle-class or wealthier and white, organized social movements rooted in their faith commitments have been essential to creating change that benefits all people. Vincent Lloyd argues that Black theology and Black practice in the US is not only about the critique of ideologies, but social movement organizing. The Black Church has never had the luxury of not being “political” because our political system condemns Blacks from the moment of their birth, viewing them, in the words of Kelly Brown Douglas, as “perpetually guilty chattel.”
Christians, like any other group bound together by a belief system (which is everyone as all people live within some pattern of beliefs about how they should relate to one another), have sometimes been very, very wrong. Episcopal silence in the face of abolition is not a social and political position for which we should be proud. Such silence only benefitted slave owners, many of whom were Episcopalian. The white Christian Nationalism which suffuses far-right US Christian politics and platforms is utterly anti-Jesus. But sometimes, Christians have gotten it right: some white Episcopalians marched with their Black siblings to advocate for civil rights and the concrete policies that protect those rights. Many Episcopalians organized for the right of women to vote and gays to marry. Many of us are Episcopalian precisely because The Episcopal Church has taken particular stands on how we interpret the good news of Jesus not only within our faith community, but in the society of which we are a part. Claiming that it isn’t good Episcopal practice to advocate or endorse particular political and social position, measures, laws, and policies, is simply hypocritical.
It is also dangerous, because again, silence preserves the status quo. But if the status quo endangers the lives or diminishes the flourishing of human beings made in the image of God, silence may as well be a vote to preserve injustice. Silence is a political action. To think otherwise is either profoundly naive or collaborative with injustice.
We need to think carefully about what we advocate. We need to use our intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom to creatively engage policies and practices. As generally wealthier and whiter Episcopalians we need to listen to the wisdom and expert policy recommendations of the vulnerable, the poor, and the Black and Brown, and sometimes, put aside the assumption that we always know best and just get on board someone else’s idea (Oregonians, check out reimagineregon.org). In my diocese, we will likely argue vociferously over endorsing Measure 114 which addresses loopholes in gun permitting and restricts magazine sizes in an attempt to reduce gun homicide and suicide (personally, I believe in much stronger restrictions). It isn’t perfect, but it is pragmatic and will likely save lives. But advocating for nothing means nothing will change.
In the face of injustice, especially injustice implemented by fellow Christians, progressive and Episcopal Christians need to make better arguments, and advocate for better policies, and we should voice them clearly, consistently, and if necessary, loudly.