Vail Daily column: 45-year fight for fairness
July 15, 2017
Today marks the 45th anniversary of my ordination to Christian ministry. On this July date in 1972, a colonial Presbyterian church in New Jersey welcomed me as pastor.
When revisiting this church, I meander in a colonial graveyard across the street. Presbyterians are buried there who fought in the Revolutionary War. Their representatives attended the first General Assembly in Philadelphia. Acting as the official voice for Presbyterians, these representatives addressed concerns regarding faith and politics to President George Washington.
Colonial Presbyterians practiced a public faith that shaped civic values. Their example has inspired me to write commentaries for the secular press since the early 1970s.
My primary aim in print exposes politics that rob the poor, refugees and immigrants of their rights. Treat these people fairly, teaches Jesus. If passages referring to the poor, refugees and immigrants are cut from the Bible, then Scripture becomes pencil-thin. Christians must grow to "the stature of Christ's fullness" (Ephesians 4:13), which involves protecting the rights of groups that lack political influence.
Shortly after my ordination, three mentors shared advice on whether to comment on politics in print. A much-loved Presbyterian pastor shared secrets of longevity for his 40-year ministry in a church near Princeton, New Jersey. He seldom wrote for publication, even in the church newsletter.
"You become too controversial if you get into print," he warned.
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Two other mentors, politician Thomas Jefferson and preacher-turned-teacher of social ethics Reinhold Niebuhr, expressed convictions in print. Detractors detested them.
In May 1774, young legislator Thomas Jefferson mixed religion with politics. After colonists disguised as Mohawk Indians raided three British ships in Boston harbor on December 16, 1773, they dumped the tea cargo overboard. Jefferson said colonists "must boldly take an unequivocal stand …" with these Boston patriots who protested heavy British taxes.
In the capitol at Richmond, Jefferson advocated appointing "a day of general fasting and prayer (as) most likely to call up and alarm their (patriots) attention." He believed politics and religion were a volatile mix that ignited revolutionary passions to correct King George III's unfair taxation. Publishing these convictions, Jefferson earned the reputation as the "pen of the American Revolution" ("Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty," by John B. Boles, p. 82, Basic Books 2017).
Niebuhr served as another mentor who mixed Christian ethics with politics. Before teaching at Manhattan's Union Theological Seminary in the first half of the 20th century, he served a parish in Detroit. Eastern European immigrants and Southern black sharecroppers who worked on automotive assembly lines enjoyed few rights. Niebuhr questioned in print how unfairly Henry Ford took advantage of these laborers.
He was tempted to stay out of print and preserve popularity in his blue-collar parish. "One of the most fruitful sources of self-deception in the ministry," he wrote in a diary recording his pastorate at Detroit's Bethel Evangelical Church (1915-1928), "is the proclamation of great ideals and principles without any clue to their relation to the controversial issues of the day…" ("Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic," pp. 218-219, Willett, Clark & Colby, Chicago, 1929). Niebuhr wrote books and commentaries that upset the powerful because he sided with the powerless.
Today, President Donald Trump ramps up campaign rhetoric that all undocumented immigrants must be deported from United States. He supports a moratorium on Muslims entering our country. The Supreme Court will rule on its legality during its upcoming judicial year.
"You would think that a people steeped in the Bible — which commands and exemplifies concern for refugees and others in dire straits — would find President Trump's closing the door to the world's neediest refugees repulsive," laments Mark Galli, editor in chief of the evangelical magazine "Christianity Today", started by Billy Graham. "But white evangelicals support Trump's exclusionary policy by a whopping 75 percent." (www.christianitytoday.con/ct/june/trump-white-evangelicals-churchs- biggest-challenge-2017.html).
Comparing the Christian church to a ship, it's been said that, "God sure chose a crazy, leaky vessel to help save the world." Writing commentaries that intersect Christianity with politics, I aim to patch leaks caused by Americans of faith who deny rights to vulnerable people.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive.
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