Jim Watkins

Roxie was working hard at her computer; her nose flying across the key board as she pecked away. The amount of slobber being thrown around made me wish I had worn a raincoat. “Roxie, thought you’d be finished with your Human Watchers Guide by now.”

“I’m finished with the Guide and it has been delivered to my editor. I’m working on a first for me, a column about a column. I was so impressed by Steve Williams’ column of a couple of weeks ago, ‘It’s None Of My Spiritual Business.’ Steve noted that today clergy and other folks of faith have shied away from taking positions on the public issues of the day..”

“Whoa, sounds like we have stopped preaching and begun meddling.”

“No not at all. In fact, his column matched nicely with a chapter in the Human Watcher’s Guide. I’ve noticed that human church leaders tend not to speak about how their faith relates to some of the tough issues of the day — immigration, racism, war and peace, environment, the tone of elections,.... Steve reminded us that communities of faith, at their best, have taken stands about the issues of the day. He used as an example, the struggle in Georgetown County to insure African Americans were represented when governmental decisions were made. A minister led that struggle.”

“Unfortunately Steve and you are generally correct in your observations.. I’m not being judgmental, just descriptive. Sometimes, clergy, like myself, are reluctant to help folks apply their faith, in specific terms, to what is going on in the world about them.”

“Jim, why is that?”

“Roxie, at one level (here comes one of my broken records again), it’s a misunderstanding of the separation of church and state. It can’t be said enough, particularly in this election year, the Separation of Church and State is the separation of the church as an institution from the state as an institution so that neither controls the other. But, it is not the separation of religious values from forming public policy. At another level, in my experience, church leaders often don’t know how to go about talking about tough issues. And at a third level, some church leaders are fearful of what might happen if they comment on issues of the day. When I was on a seminary faculty, my task was to help clergy and clergy in training move beyond the walls of the church.”

“What would you suggest to church leaders about how to go about sharing their thoughts on tough topics?

“There is no ‘1, 2, 3,... to it. However, there are some things to keep in mind. Whether it is a sermon or a conversation. Speak out of vision, not demand. Paint a picture of what God wants the world to be like. Speak confessionally, not dogmatically. Share how you see it and not how others should see it Remember that you are an interpreter of God’s vision, not a political scientist. But still, do your homework. I’ve shared Reinhold Niebuhr’s quote before, ‘consecrated ignorance is still ignorance’. Get to know facts about the issue. Give folks something to do. Encourage conversation about the issue. And, as a person of faith, expect the Spirit of God to move.”

“Jim, those suggestions are not only for humans. Canines could benefit from them too. Some of my canine friends think they can make humans and other canines do what they want rather than inviting them into a relationship and meaningful conversation. Tell me, how did you go about helping seminary students include a concern for public issues in their ministry?”

“We integrated public matters into courses. In the class on spirituality, students wrote letters to their US Representative as a spiritual exercise. In an Old Testament Bible course, refugees were our guests. They put flesh and blood on Exodus. The ethics class helped students to avoid, “consecrated ignorance”. Preaching gave them pointers on how to preach about tough topics without being tuned out. That is where my previous suggestions came from.”

“That’s interesting. I understand how giving clergy tools helps them, what about fear of taking stands?”

“The fear was acknowledge in all the courses, but one course stands out in my memory. It was the course on pastoral care. We included a season on the pastoral care of public officials. We invited state legislators who happened to be Presbyterian to the class. The group of legislators included Republicans and Democrats; “liberals” and “conservatives”. One question asked of the legislators was what do you expect from your pastor. One of the most conservative legislators said, ‘I expect my pastor to deal with public issues from the pulpit. I may not agree with my pastor, but I want to know where my pastor stands. That will give me something to bounce off of as I wrestle with what my faith means in the public arena.”

“Wow, Jim. What you’re saying is that when we move beyond our fears, good things can happen. So, to use your paratrooper language — go out the door.”

“Amen, couldn’t have said it better Roxie. Time for Happy Hour.”

The Rev. Dr. Jim Watkins and Roxie