The Rock and the Hard Place: Pastors and Politics


The White House recently released its budget plans. I looked over articles that summarized the plans from several of the least biased sources I could find (AP, Reuters, etc.). Essentially, large increases in defense spending are paired with pretty massive cuts to programs that feed the poor, protect the environment, educate kids and care for those who are on the margins of society. I saw potential cuts to Meals on Wheels, reductions in helping the poor with heating bills, elimination of housing programs that keep a roof over the heads of those in need, and cessation of efforts to clean up the Great Lakes and groundwater, just to name a few. With all that in view, I realized that I was between a rock and hard place, as they say.

On the one side, there are the voices that, as a pastor, tell me all this is none of my business. These voices are often anonymous, but they are real. These voices are concerned that saying anything that might offend someone’s political commitments is too big a risk. That making someone mad, or perhaps, not making everyone happy is a detriment to a congregation’s unity.  These voices believe that the “separation of church and state” means that the church should not have an opinion on such things; that matters of faith are singularly private and never public. I get that. I hear those voices and understand them. To listen to these voices means that I keep my pastoral and theological mouth shut about injustice and a lack of compassion in a federal budget; that I do not speak for those who will suffer. It is certainly the easier path. But then I wonder, who will speak a word about what God might think about something that impacts creature and creation so deeply?

On the other side are voices that remind me that the kingdom of God is, in fact, a present reality that addresses every aspect of life – including economics and politics; that the reign of God is a very public matter, even as it has profound personal meaning. For a pastor, these voices include Jesus telling us we must address the needs of “the least of these;” prophets condemning the government for neglecting the widow, orphan and alien while they make war and get right; saints of every age who spoke – and died – calling for justice, peace, compassion; voices like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero. There are also the voices that rise from governing documents that tell the pastor to speak for these things and the people affected, and ordination vows that make it a solemn, sacred promise. To listen to these voices means I keep promises I have made; that I assert that God has an opinion about federal budgets that make the poor poorer, the hungry hungrier, the planet victimized. It also seems to be the harder, riskier path.

You can say that my reading of this matter (and all others) is shaped by my own personal agenda. While I spend a lot of time trying to make it about God, my thoughts are ultimately my own (which means no one has to listen to me). However, my reading of the matter as a pastor works not to be centered in the liberal philosophy of Noam Chomskey or the progressive politics of FDR, JFK, or LBJ; it is not to be informed by the individualism and social Darwinism of Ayn Rand or the conservatism of Reagan. These voices, to the extent possible, have to be constantly pushed to the background so that the voice of scripture, Church, saints, ultimately, of Jesus take the center. I believe all of the philosophies and politics mentioned are, at best, misguided and often, just terribly wrong. Progressive notions that humanity can fix every ill and end every suffering is nonsense. Conservative notions about an unrestrained world where individuals all thrive if they are free and accountable enough is equally flawed. God’s future is the only future.

Most of us pastors sit between a rock and a hard place, pinched between the rock of what is popular and practical (and safe) and the hard place of promises made and theological commitments shaped by what we believe are about God – a God who has everything to do with this world and today. It is a place we all knew would exist when we signed on. It is the place of the cross.

So, what is a pastor to do when stuck between a rock and a hard place? Any suggestions?

© 2017 Timothy V. Olson, all rights reserved


Give Up A Grudge: A Lenten Fast


Saul was tall, dark, and handsome. Saul was the first king of Israel. He was a man who led his army with some success and was admired by all… well, at least for a time. One of the things that contributed to Saul’s fall from grace and his demise was a grudge he held against David, who was his successor. After David killed Goliath on the field of battle, David become part of King Saul’s household. He grew up and became a very successful military in Saul’s army. When the crowds started singing his praises, Saul began growing a grudge. It grew so dark and deep that he tried to kill David. While David had many opportunities to get rid of his patron turned persecutor, he did not take them. Saul carried his grudge to the grave.

That is the thing about a grudge, we think we hold them to hurt the person we hate. The truth is a grudge just damages our own souls as they make us dark, paranoid and driven by pain. Self-pity and retribution fill our hearts. As one saying goes, “Holding a grudge is like letting a person live rent free in your brain.” Trust me, that person you direct all that anger toward is probably not spending any time thinking about you.

The Lenten journey to follow Jesus is rooted in confession — and reconciliation. Jesus told us to forgive our enemies, to make peace with one another before we approach the altar, to initiate the work of making peace. So, I’d like to suggest that for a Lenten fast, you give up a grudge. Pick a little on or a great big boulder of one. Give it to God in prayer. Ask for the help to forgive. Give up a grudge for Lent and clear some space in your head for that unneeded tenant.

© 2017 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved