Preaching the Politics that are Life

By Cynthia L. Rigby

A pastor native to a very poor country that is in a constant state of political upheaval once asked me why it is that Americans commonly say “the pulpit is no place for politics.” “Good politics get hungry people food,” he explained to me, in earnest.  “And getting hungry people food is the Gospel.  So you have to have politics from the pulpit, so more people can eat.  Don’t you see,” he implored, “that preaching politics is preaching life?”

Is he right about this?  Is politics really about life, or do politics merely get in the way of what matters most?

Dictionary definitions commonly associate the word “political” with “taking sides” and being divisive.  Certainly, there is some wisdom to preachers avoiding partisan “politics,” in this sense, when their charge is to bear witness to the wholeness and inclusive character of the Kingdom of God.  And yet “politics,” etymologically speaking, is not first and foremost about dividing people up.  It is, rather, about creating an environment in which all citizens can rightfully flourish.  To think “politically,” in this better sense of the term, has strong resonance with our Christian commitment to upholding every living person as created in the image of God.

In this way of thinking, then, that pastor is right:  politics are about life, and must be addressed from the pulpit.

Karl Barth famously said, reflecting on this, that pastors should preach “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”  The point of Barth’s comment is not necessarily that preachers should take on the task of persuading their congregations to vote for this or that candidate or to support this or that issue. Rather, the point is to remind us that God’s Word is never known in the abstract, but always in relation to the dramas and banalities of our everyday lives. God meets us never in general, but in the nitty gritty details of the world - in our specific contexts and political circumstances.

If the newspaper helps us see what the world does look like, the Bible helps us imagine what it should look like.  Powerful, pushing-us-down-the-road-toward-Jerusalem-type preaching busts out from the tension between this “does” and this “should.”  When we have the Bible ever ready at hand, we can no longer cope with those depressing stories in our newspaper by way of a lower-your-expectations-so-you’re-not-disappointed attitude that “this is just the way it has to be.”  This is because the Bible reminds us that the world does not have to be this violent, or sad, or distorted.  God did not create the world to be broken, we remember, and so all creation groans for redemption (Ro. 8:22).  

Beware, all ye who hold Bible in one hand and newspaper in the other:  paying attention to the Bible, while reading the news, might make your pain even worse, and your preaching more unsettling.  
It is tempting to block out the events of the world (in the name of pastoral piety and all other things righteous) in order to get our sermon manuscripts completed.  But if we have set aside the newspaper in order to hold the Bible with both our hands, we may not actually be preaching.  The Word of God will not be discovered buried in the words of even that most marvelous of all books.  Rather, it is mysteriously and miraculously discerned by the Holy Spirit through our constant reading and re-reading of the written Word, which in turn illumines our reading of that newspaper.  The preacher is called, and then called again, to view the world through the biblical text and so better see (and proclaim) the surprising, transformative things God is doing in our lives, and in the politics that are our life together.

When we preach the politics that are life, we bear witness to the Gospel that simultaneously comforts and challenges.  The Word is made flesh, and enters into existence with us.  Even when there are too many houses burned down by the wildfires, and terrible memories of terrorist acts, and inane politicians spewing forth on the news, God is faithful still.  But because the Word is made flesh, neither we nor the people we serve are authorized to be complacent.  On the contrary, we have no real choice but to be political – in our preaching, and in the living of our days.

For Classes 2006- 2010


Beyond Budgets and Pastoral Care: Pastors as Public Theologians

November 2-4, 2011

Your Role as Preacher on Public Issues

Presenter: Dr. Karl Travis

Your Role as Writer

Presenter: The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt (MDiv'98)

Your Role as Social Media Guru

Presenter: Christopher Harris (MDiv '08)


Click here for more information


Cost: Get yourself here and $30 registration fee (Great speakers are worth it!), includes housing and meals

Housing: Available on a first come, first served basis for Nov. 2-3 in McCord, Currie Hall and Smoot Center. Discounted rates for Ramada Inn also available.