Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Preaching — a Heartbeat away from Washington, D.C.

I am proud of my heritage and fond of telling visitors on my tours at the Library of Congress, that I am a sixth generation Washingtonian. As in D.C. While others move in and out of the city, with each passing administration, the Peacocks have stayed here from one decade to the next.

I believe this is so because we have never worked for the government or been in politics. We are the ordinary working people who love and call the District of Columbia home.

This does not mean that we have never been political, of course. I was raised by a Jesuit educated, Rockefeller Republican father. Dr. Peacock preached fiscal responsibility and championed civil rights. I myself am an aging hippie, who skipped school to protest the Vietnam War. A year shy of voting age, I rallied for George McGovern — who, as we all know, lost in a landslide to “Tricky Dick” Nixon.

I’ve lived in Alexandria, Virginia for over thirty years now, in the shadow of my beloved hometown. Alexandria has sometimes (mostly fondly) been called “The People’s Republic of Alexandria” — a predominantly blue bubble in what has become a purple state.

I am comfortable here, maybe a little too comfortable. My bleeding heart liberal politics are rarely challenged in my own backyard. And as preacher and pastor, in the pulpit I try to own that. I try to be honest and not self-righteously holier than thou. As if, Democrats had a monopoly on holier-than-thou. Far from it.

I serve a congregation whose bread and butter relies on both government and politics. While I discern the politics in our pews skew center-left, I am grateful that they are balanced with faithful folks on the right side of the aisle.

Politely, we Episcopalians believe that we check our politics at the church door. For middle child and peacemaker me, this has been a comfy place to be. Again, maybe too comfy.

I took a vow to preach the Gospel, not apologize for it.

St Bernard preaching in the public square.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously said he hoped his “preaching would comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Not his own words exactly, Niebuhr was paraphrasing a Chicago journalist. In 1902, “Finley Peter Dunne wrote a column in the ‘everyman voice’ of fictional Mr. Dooley — a satiric ode to newspapers’ important place in society.” Dunne regularly critiqued Theodore Roosevelt and the President loved it, often sharing the commentary during his cabinet meetings.

Though public and political in its origins, the quote has a very biblical ring to it.

Reinhold Niebuhr picked it up in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II. William Sloane Coffin Jr. used it as an anti-war rallying cry. Martin Marty, the Lutheran theologian, quotes the journalist to emphasize that in a me-first-world, God will be just as just with the rich, as he is merciful to the poor.

All three of these religious thinkers are staking a claim in the political sphere. Jesus did not preach in a vacuum. He challenged the corrupt powers and principalities of his day, who preyed on the outcaste and destitute.

Kingdom of God language is political language.

Which brings me to the political firestorm in which we find ourselves now.

In my 25 years of ordained ministry, five presidential elections have come and gone. And now in 2020, here comes the sixth. From the pulpit, I have never told anyone who to vote for. Democrats and Republicans, in many ways, have seemed virtually interchangeable — just leaning in a different direction every four to eight years. Brazen partisanship, I believe, does not have a place in the pulpit. But that does not mean that the policies of politicians and elected officials – aspirational or real — cannot be critiqued in church.

In fact, I took a vow to do just that. I took a vow to preach both love of God and love of neighbor. I took a vow to speak the truth in love.

Rabbi James Prosnit, last year, preached much the same on Rosh Hashanah morning:

I’ve tried never to be partisan. But as I’ve suggested to some, my rabbinic role requires me to be political — particularly when the Jewish values on issues are so clear in my mind. When it comes to God’s earth and this planet, Judaism has some things to say. When it comes to societal inequalities… our tradition reminds us that with privilege comes responsibility. And when it comes to something like immigration and refugee status, not only our texts, but our history and experience as Jews has a lot to teach those in power.”

Inheritors of the prophetic tradition, this is just as true for Christians, as it is for Jews. Just as true for this Episcopal priest, as it is for the rabbi.

And in this poisonous milieu, where we currently stew, Rabbi Prosnit continues,

The present mindset purposefully and blatantly exploits divisions by what we tweet, and by the names used to call out or belittle someone we disagree with.”

In the Twitter-sphere, and on social media, hate has found a home. A place where it is nourished and helped to flourish. Cyberspace has become a cowardly place, where bullies choose to hide. On Facebook, in a virtual world with like-minded friends, we don’t have to come face to face with anyone real. And we don’t have to take any real responsibility for the damage we do to the fragile social fabric — of our culture, communities, and country.

Our Sunday service means little, if it does not speak to the realities of our Monday through Saturday lives — if it does not speak to the precarious times in which we live. Our heavenly theology means nothing if it does not allow us to wrestle with everyday devils.

So nothing from the public sphere should be off limits in the pulpit or in our prayers. Not abortion, nor addiction, nor climate change, nor the death penalty, nor gun violence, nor healthcare, nor human rights, nor immigration, nor criminal justice, nor public safety, nor racism, nor anything else should be forboden.

This does not mean, of course that the priest and the preacher, are instant experts on current issues or world affairs, far from it. But it does mean that our faith can inform our thinking and move us to do, what Christians ought to do morally and ethically – to help heal this broken world.

And if you can’t talk about life’s most important issues in church, we might as well close our doors, right?

So, the Episcopal Church welcomes you, my friends. Come worship with us at Emmanuel at 1608 Russell Road in Alexandria, Virginia. Sunday mornings at 8:00 AM or 10:30 AM.

All are welcome. With all your questions. With all your concerns. With all your hopes. No exceptions.