Politics, ethics and the voice of the church

February 21st, 2018

Can churches be involved in the most volatile issues of our day? The Parkland, Fla. school shooting begs the question. Seventeen more people are dead, most of them children. It’s the 25th fatal school shooting, and the 208th school shooting overall, since Columbine High School in 1999. That’s almost 11 per year. If the church can’t or won’t speak out against this sort of violence, then what hope is there for a voice of conscience in our world?

Here’s the trouble, though. When we try to speak to wrenching issues like school shootings from a political perspective, we get caught in either/or choices. Our two-party political system creates a win-lose situation with no room for nuanced disagreement. Either/or choices are destined to polarize. Churches are reluctant to get involved. I get it. I’d like to offer an alternative that every church can use.

Thankfully, speaking from a political perspective is not the church’s only choice. Churches can and should speak from an ethical perspective. Webster defines ethics as “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.” For the church, ethics are the living out of our faith in a world in which choices are rarely black and white.

When churches speak from an ethical position, we are able to discern and articulate truths that go deeper than the artificial either/or choices created by our two-party system. Adopting an ethical perspective means we consider how core values of the Gospels and Jesus’ teachings impact public policy. Viewing current events through an ethical lens also empowers us to address how the gifts and potentials of human life impact our responsibility to the common good. Finally, because we believe in a hopeful future for all of God’s good Creation, an ethical perspective enables us to react not just to what is, but to powerfully envision what could be.

Clearly, if we don’t want 11 more school shootings per year, not to mention 6 church shootings per year, we have new choices to make about how we approach the following: access to deadly weapons, gun policy, public health, the safety of our children, and the way boys and men express their rage and disenchantment. (Yes, almost all these shooters have been men.)

In the United Methodist Church, members take a vow to resist evil and injustice in whatever forms they present themselves. That’s as clear a call for an ethical response to current events as I’ve ever heard.

How do you respond ethically? I suggest this 7-step process. It’s not perfect or complete, but it will give you a starting point. United Methodists will recognize elements of the process as it engages the Wesleyan quadrilateral, the four sources by which we live out our faith.

When it comes to thinking ethically, the first and most important step is to get the facts. That means looking beyond Facebook memes and polarizing talking heads. It means digging deeper to find out what’s really going on. “Some moral issues create controversies simply because we do not bother to check the facts,” observe the authors of Thinking Ethically.

Second, turn to the Scriptures. Discover the biblical stories or principles that might apply. This means thinking deeply and widely about meta messages of the Bible. Resist the temptation to pluck one or two scriptures out of context that seem to fit the situation. Many of the ethical dilemmas we face today were never mentioned in scripture. Similarly, the scriptures themselves were written over centuries in response to situations that are far from our postmodern context.

Third, look to other commentaries or sources of your faith. United Methodists will want to consult the Book of Discipline, the Social Principles, and the Book of Resolutions, to see how other informed persons of faith have approached these issues.

Fourth, look at the history of the issue. How has it been dealt with in the past? What has worked? What hasn’t? As thinking persons of faith, we engage our faculties of reason.

Fifth, engage in prayer. A word of caution here. I wouldn’t necessarily ask for specific answers to your specific questions; this prayer may lead to confusing our own solutions with God’s divine guidance. Rather, I suggest praying for guidance and wisdom as you discern together.

Sixth, engage in respectful, patient, discussion about the resources at hand. To do so, first decide on ground rules and boundaries, so that your discussions don’t become polarized or violent. At this point, don’t try to come to final solutions or absolute positions. Rather, keep an open mind. Keep prayer present even in the discussion. Over time, discuss possible ethics-based approaches to addressing the problem at hand.

Don’t worry if you don’t all come to the same conclusion. You probably won’t. That’s okay. Here’s what you will have done: you will have thought faithfully and ethically about the issues at hand. This ethics-based process creates trust, the ability to move beyond polarizing politics, and increased skill at diving deep as a community of faith.

Finally, take action. Establish new ministries. Establish new policies. Pray new prayers. Preach new sermons. Encourage new conversations. Draft new policies. Call the powers that be. Write letters. Speak up. Get together with other like-minded folks. March. Cry. Shout. Pray. The actions you take will be dependent on your setting and circumstances. The main thing is to act.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at rebekahsimonpeter.com. She is the author of The Jew Named Jesus and Green Church.

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