A Comment on No Comment

It is the silence of the megachurches and pastors that bothers me.  I have just finished writing a commentary on the most famous sermon in history, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a sermon that calls followers of Jesus to a kind of life that issues into “good works,” and I must speak out.

I refer to the recent post by CNN’s John Blake on the CNN Belief Blog about the coverage gap in 25 states where, it is estimated by Kaiser, that some 5 million Americans will not qualify for insurance coverage. That is, part of the Affordable Care Act entails increase in coverage by Medicaid, while a SCOTUS decision gives states the option of implementing Medicaid expansion or not. The sad gap is that some will make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for ACA’s subsidies.  5 million Americans in approximately 25 states, most of them Southern.

So John Blake went on a mission to see what Southern megachurch pastors had to say about what will be a sad lack of coverage for poor Americans.  Time after time he got no comment, and his article ends with a stunning “no comment” from one of America’s (northern) finest pastors, Tim Keller from NYC, whose state did expand Medicaid but whose leadership extends to evangelical Christians throughout the world, including those states that did not expand Medicaid coverage. That “no comment” troubled John Blake. (I wish Blake had asked more non-Southern pastors, like Rick Warren or Bill Hybels whose commitments to justice for the poor are unquestionable.)

I have two comments in response to Blake, something I disagree with and something I think needs expanding. First, I must press a weakness in Blake’s article. Here’s what I see in his logic:

Christians are to support the poor (check);
Supporting the poor somehow would include state-based or nation-based tax systems that distribute funds to the poor (check, at least in part);
ACA is state-based or nation-based funding for the poor (check);
Christians, therefore, should support the ACA, but some Christian leaders are against it and that lack of support calls into question their Christianity.

Blake’s mistake here is the logical leap from Christian compassion for the poor into support of ACA. He suggests the pastors’ “no comment” means a lack of Christian action. In other words, those who don’t oppose those states’ decision don’t care about the poor.  It does not follow that care for the poor must include support of ACA. There are other ways to care for the poor.

But what bothered me was not Blake’s logic, for it could be argued that the logic may be a bit weak but the overall direction of his observations entirely justified, and I agree.

No, it is the silences, those “no comment” observations, that concern me. From John Blake’s piece: “Virtually no prominent pastor wanted to talk about the uninsured poor in their midst.”

American Christianity, and this applies both to evangelicalism and conservative Catholics and to Protestant and Catholic liberals, is polarized by politics. One can observe without effort that America’s churches, mainline and megachurch evangelical, are too neatly aligned with political parties. The mainline likes the Democrat platform while evangelicalism likes the GOP.

There are, of course, reasons why each side lines up politically or why one’s theology becomes a kind of politics.

The facts reveal that Republican-leaning American evangelicals are a generous lot, more generous than Democrat-leaning mainline liberals. The irony is not missed by evangelicals.

But why the silence?  Why the “no comment” response by leaders?

Of course, some may not want to be connected in any way with ACA or with CNN. “No comment” reflects, then, a posture toward quotation – or even misquotation – in a left-leaning news source. Such are the politics of our times that support of the poor implicates a pastor in political posturing or, which is more likely, supporting anything like ACA implicates the pastor in the Democrats.

However, one sometimes wonders if one’s politics is not running theology.

When evangelical theology leads so many evangelical leaders to support Republican politics to the degree that these pastors fear even a few safe, simple and straightforward lines in support of the poor, or at least some concerns about the lack of coverage of fellow Americans because of economic levels, then the silence of pastors tells the story of politics far more than the story of the gospel.

When “I am saddened by the lack of coverage for the poor” or “I support some kind of social benefit for the uncovered poor” or “We ought to find a better way” are so political that the pastors fear backlash from their own congregations and the public then there’s something wrong in the church itself.

Christians follow a Lord whose mother and father were too poor to offer a standard sacrifice at the temple, a Lord who taught there was no place to lay the head for those who were following him, a Lord who said the gospel was for the poor, a Lord who blessed the poor, a Lord who called his followers to find financial support from those who loved his new kingdom mission, and a Lord who was himself poor his entire life. We also follow a Lord whose own brother, James, said these simple words:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

When I read those words I wonder if too many pastors and churches are so polluted by the world’s politics that they are unable publicly to support orphans and widows. That, James the follower of Jesus said, is what pure religion is all about.

The same James said this, words that haunt even more than the previous words:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

There is no reason, ever, for any Christian leader to have “no comment” when it comes to saying something on behalf of the poor and needy in our country.

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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