You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don't let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. (Galatians 5:13, CEB translation)
It is a humbling thing to serve in a town with a national cemetery. Honestly, before I came to Fort Smith, I thought there was just the one national cemetery, the one in Washington, D.C. Then, just after I arrived, I was called on to do a funeral at Fort Smith’s National Cemetery for one of my parishioners. Of all the funerals I do, military funerals are the hardest. There is something overwhelming about watching that flag get folded and handed to the closest relative, usually a spouse or a child. The weight of the service of the one who passed feels too heavy for me. It is a solemn, profound moment.
As we approach Memorial Day this year, I am yoked with a different kind of weight. I feel responsible in some way for how broken our nation feels right now. I think of our soldiers all around to world, and I wonder how they must feel. What are they fighting for, exactly? What is our country today if not a loose confederation of selfish people pursuing our own wants and desires? What happened to the idea of a common good, and not a simple common good where the majority is favored, but a common good that works for the good of all? Of course, we have never achieved such a vision, and in fact we know we have whole periods in history where we just refused to see whole groups of people in order to proclaim our success in declaring all [men] equal, but we have certainly done better at aiming at such a goal from time to time.
When writing his letter to the Galatians, Paul was also writing to a fractured community, one struggling deeply to try to define its values. Paul is infuriated that they have compromised those values, particularly by insisting on circumcision, when Paul knows that what is central to their identity is the faith of Christ. And what has that faith done? It has set them free. Free from being defined by physical characteristics, and free to take on a new identity in the family of Christ. That freedom, however, comes with a profound responsibility: love each other. Yes, you may be free from old, broken concepts of self, but that does not mean you can just go your own way and do your own thing. You have been set free to serve, and not serve self, but serve others.
This verse is gnawing at my soul right now. Gnawing because every day I turn on the television I see another way we are broken. But before I sit here and idealize what could have been, I have to admit that had our presidential election gone the other way, we might find ourselves still confronting scandal after scandal, because who knows what is true anymore? Also, it seems that defense of party has become far more important than what is good for the people.
But what gnaws at me more than this is my own unwillingness to do anything about it. Now, on the one hand, as a pastor I am called to a prophetic role that is supposed to stand on the edge of the system and hold it accountable, particularly to its treatment of those on the margins. But then I am also called to work for God’s justice, and sometimes that is best done within the system. All this soul-searching, then, has prompted me to reverse a long-standing position I have had.
I must be willing to run for President.
I have no desire to be President (nor do I have a desire to be a Bishop in the UMC or even a District Superintendent). However, if I am to commit myself to the good of the whole, then I must use the gifts and graces God has given me to serve others with love. I do not have the gifts and graces to serve in the military. The physicality necessary there is not something I will ever be good at. I struck out in t-ball, for heaven’s sake. No way am I going to have the necessary physical skills for that world. Likewise, I am not called to legislative or judicial branches. In the first place, I lack the training. In the second place, Robert’s Rules of Order drive me insane. I do not have the patience needed to debate the intricacies of each new law.
Executive Branch, however, that is a different story. That branch is essentially a vision-casting branch. A unifying branch. That is what pastors are trained for. We are trained for executive duties. Also, despite the fact that often in the media the church is portrayed as this all-in-agreement monolith, one of the things I have to do is get people who actually don’t agree on things to work toward a common goal. Look, only 20 years after Jesus walked the earth, the church was in deep disagreement about how to follow him. It is no different now, and yet pastors work every day to move us back to Jesus as we stray.
So, I offer my executive skills to my country. It has to be worth walking away from being a pastor, though, which is why I suggest President. I would possibly consider Governor. Anything local, though, I can accomplish in many ways better from pulpit than office. Also, while I carry the weight of immortal souls on my hands in my current role, I would carry both souls and the blood of physical bodies in those other positions, and that puts my own soul in serious danger. In fact, it may cost my own salvation. So the sacrifice has to be worth it.
I would also entertain running in either major party, though you should both know that my allegiance will lie first with Jesus, and Jesus is not happy with either of you. So I will not walk the party line. I will walk the people line. And why not run independent? Because no independent is going to get elected; the system is far too broken for that. Also, again, if I am going to leave pastoring, I need a real shot at winning. That being said, you should also be aware that I am not going to care about getting re-elected. I would be leaving a career where I can expect to move from my current position every few years. What I do in the meantime is try to leave the church I serve stronger than they were before. Sometimes that involves taking unpopular positions. If that is what is best for the health of the whole, though, that is where I will go, even if it means people will ask me to leave.
All this being said, however, I know I may not be the best person for the job. What I hope in offering my service, more than anything, is that it will inspire someone who is right for the job, who is suspicious of the system we currently have and whose stomach churns at the thought of taking on this position, but who could do real good in the midst, will offer themselves up in all seriousness. Because I know we are better than this. I know we really want to have a country where we all look out for each other. I know we really want to be a people who is called to freedom, but called to freedom in order to serve in love. I want us to be the country that all those people in the national cemetery just a few miles from me fought for, and in some cases died for. Just as they were willing, let us be willing also.