Thursday, March 17, 2016

Preaching Politics (Clay Stauffer) - Review

PREACHING POLITICS: Proclaiming Jesus in an Age of Money, Power, and Partisanship. By Clay Stauffer. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2016. 115 pages.

                I was raised in a politically active household. My father was chair of the Siskiyou County Republican Party and had a regular radio spot. He even made it into Who’s Who in American Politics. I did my part as a child going door to door handing out brochures and buttons for candidates ranging from local to national. I even imagined becoming a politician. I’ve really never been as politically active as I was at age fourteen.

                I remain extremely interested in politics, but as a pastor I must temper my political activities. That is, I have to remember that I serve a congregation that isn’t politically homogeneous. While I do engage in community organizing and address prophetically (hopefully) important issues that have political implications, I don’t bring a partisan vision into the pulpit. Preachers often walk fine line when it comes to politics. Many of us believe it is important to speak to controversial issues, but we also must take a pastoral approach. At a time when the body politic is increasingly polarized this becomes incredibly difficult. This especially true when the conversation involves money.


                It is with this background that I approached Clay Stauffer’s new book Preaching Politics. In many ways I found myself ready to switch out the author’s name for my own. He was speaking my language. Of course, even though the author is a fellow Disciple pastor we probably wouldn’t agree on every matter. Stauffer describes himself as being slightly center-right. I am further to the left than him. Stauffer is the senior minster at Woodmont Christian Church in Nashville. This is a large affluent and moderately conservative mainline congregation.  While he believes it is important to address social justice issues, he has to remember his audience. He can be prophetic, but he has to also be pastor.

                It is this interplay between being prophetic and pastoral that marks the book and makes it an important read. As we consider how to engage the political realm from the pulpit is good to remember that politics isn't just about elections or candidates. It is also about important issues. If one engages with Scripture, and preachers must engage scripture (my bias), then the preacher will encounter politically charged words. This is especially true when we read the prophets or Jesus. It is also important that when we read about Jesus or Paul, that we remember that they didn’t live in a modern secular state. Religion and politics often encountered each other. Preaching the Kingdom of God put Jesus on a collision course with Caesar.   

                Stauffer is interested in the way in which preachers engage politically charged issues, especially those that involve economics and consumerism. He writes that "growing materialism, the glorification of money, rampant consumerism, the constant quest for more, and a false sense of security present real challenges to our spiritual lives and the church of the future" (p. 3). These economically driven realities have to be addressed from the pulpit. They are matters of justice but also of stewardship. In fact, Stauffer connects the way the church speaks of stewardship to the broader concern for wise use of resources.

                With that in mind Stauffer addresses the partisan divides that exist within congregations—assuming that many of us serve politically diverse congregations. In chapter one Stauffer addresses these partisan divides, the connection of politics with money and self-interest, and the question of stewardship. With regard to the latter he notes that we’re seeing a decline in giving to churches. The question is why and he offers a few hypotheses.

                In chapter two Stauffer turns our attention to Luke's Gospel and invites us to examine how Jesus addressed politics and money. He notes that Jesus addresses money in a significant number of his parables. Of course, we can’t neglect that Holy Week scene when Jesus cleansed the Temple. That action likely led to his execution on the cross. According to Stauffer, looking at both Luke and Matthew it seems that Jesus "felt that one should not be defined by the accumulation of wealth and possessions, but should use resources to help others who are in need" (p. 40). Thus we have the foundation for a social justice message, but what does that look like in the present day?

                Chapters 3 and 4 engage two leading figures within contemporary Christianity -- Stanley Hauerwas and Adam Hamilton. In chapter 3 he looks at Hauerwas' view of money, politics, and greed. He explores Hauerwas' critique of greed and the role it plays in American political life. At the same time, he critiques Hauerwas' seeming rejection of capitalism as compatible with Christianity. Interestingly he points to the fact that Hauerwas teaches at an institution that pays its professors well and charges its students great sums to attend. Is not Hauerwas the product of the very culture he critiques? Stauffer admires the message, but doesn't buy the entire package.

                It’s one thing to speak boldly from a tenured chair at a leading university. It’s another thing to speak with the same boldness when one is pastor of a local congregation. Thus, Stauffer moves on from Hauerwas to Adam Hamilton, with whom he finds great affinity. He speaks fondly of Hamilton's "radical center." This radical center emerges out of Hamilton’s pastoral concerns. He has to be more thoughtful in the way he makes his points, especially when they have political implications. As a pastor he is concerned about political polarization. I know of what he speaks. I see it present in my own congregation, and while I may find myself on one side of the political ledger, I have to be pastor to the entire community including those persons with whom I have political (and theological) differences. Like Hauerwas, Hamilton believes that greed is a major threat to humanity and to the spiritual life. Hamilton’s solution, however, is a bit different from that espoused by Hauerwas. He’s not, and Stauffer is not, as down on capitalism. Neither are socialists! Hamilton and Stauffer put their emphasis on stewardship and generosity as the spiritual cure for consumerism and greed.  It’s not quite as radical as a Hauerwasian vision, but it may be more successful in many of our congregations. It also gives preachers the opportunity to address major issues that have political implications without becoming completely entwined with partisanship.

                The book closes with a chapter on preaching in a materialistic culture. Here Stauffer speaks more specifically to the importance of stewardship, not just during the annual stewardship campaign, but year-round. He suggests that we keep our focus on the role of money in our spiritual lives. He offers ten suggestions about how to address the issue of politics and money. With Hamilton he believes that materialism reveals a growing spiritual void, that can't be filled by money or things. He encourages generosity, and tithing (I think there's biblical problems here, but I get the point). There's an appendix in which Stauffer shares his own story of move from right to left (during his time on staff at uber-liberal Riverside Church) and back to the center as he leads his current congregation.


                In many ways I’m at a bit different place in ministry than Stauffer. I’m older and I serve a much less affluent congregation (and a much smaller one). My politics is at different place. It’s possible that my theology is at a different place. Nonetheless this is a worthy read, especially at the current point in time. As I write this review the nation is involved in a very divisive and at times hateful political season. We who preach often wonder how to address the issues of the day. Stauffer’s book will provide a good starting point for the conversation.  There is wisdom to be found within its pages, and we who preach need a lot of wisdom!  So, take and read, and if you preach, do so carefully if you’re approaching politically charged issues. 

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