On Being Political, without the Politics

On Being Political, without the Politics

Election years are hard on churches. And it isn’t just that congregations end up divided on important issues.

We are 501(c)3 organizations, which means that we have certain perks afforded to us by the government, ostensibly because we offer to the community services which increase their value and quality of life. Essentially, the government recognizes that some things are better done by smaller organizations, and that those same organizations should get certain treatment in order to help them survive in a capitalistic society. Of course, being a 501(c)3 also comes with a high degree of scrutiny, and there are certain things that we as an organization cannot do.

Namely, we can’t get involved in politics.

Or, more accurately, we cannot be prescriptive in how we talk about politics. One of our ministers might talk about Christian ethics from the pulpit, but we are not allowed, by law, under penalty of losing our status as a 501(c)3 organization, to endorse a given candidate or to recommend a specific person or issue receive votes. Doing so would essentially cast us as a political organization, and that is legally improper. It is perhaps more ambiguous when considered morally, ethically, theologically – though I’m personally inclined to presume that a political endorsement is a misuse of the power and authority vested in clergy by their congregations.

Still, the point remains: Churches are NOT supposed to be involved in politics.

But can we still be political?

Artist Willie Cole explains his work with the reminder that “every action is political and spiritual as well as physical.” There is no separation from the history that certain images convey, no divorcing the experience of artistic subjects from artistic renditions. A painting about slaves cannot help but be political by making a statement about the presence of slavery itself. Every choice we make as people arises from our understanding of how we relate to the people around us – and that is the most basic definition of politics. I’d add to this that every action also arises from, and either confirms or denies, one’s own theological beliefs.

Christ told us that it is by our actions and fruit that we shall be known. Our hands speak louder than our voices, especially when it comes to living out the teaching of Jesus – caring for the poor, including the lowly, healing the sick, seeking God’s justice rather than our own. But if every action is political, if we believe our theology is only worthwhile when it can be lived out, what do we do as a church when our actions carry with them political stances?

University Christian Church has been meeting together for 69 years, and will celebrate it’s 70th birthday just two days before one of the most intense presidential elections in modern history. We intend to keep worshiping together for far longer than a 4 or 8 year term limit. The church cannot endorse a candidate, nor would we want to.

But our actions will be political. We cannot escape the idea that choosing to do something tells the world about how we see ourselves in relation to others. If we choose to give money to one organization over another, it tells the world about our priorities. It tells the world about our process of decision-making. It tells the world about how we as University Christian Church relate to Austin, to Texas, to the whole world. And not only our choices about how much and who to give money to, but every choice that every member makes. Every time a member brings a home-cooked meal to someone who just lost a loved one, every time a member shares a vulnerable truth about themselves, every time a member rises to sing even when so much is bringing them down, we make statements to the world about how we relate to others. Every action is political, and this church is not about to stop actively serving those around us. Our actions and service display what we believe to be true about God, about the world, and about how we’re called to balance those together. Our faith tells us that we are one body, with every member being equal. That all are welcomed to share together at the table, conservative, liberal, independent, and apathetic alike. That God has placed in each of us an image of the Divine. That our hands and feet are the hands and feet of Christ. That the grace and mercy of God is for us all. These are our politics.

University Christian Church does not endorse a candidate for this election. But we are, and will always be, political.