The Politics of Generosity

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, October 27, 2022

The Politics of Generosity

 I have often heard well-intentioned parishioners complain that their pastor’s sermons, or their denomination’s offices, are too “political.” Keeping politics out of the pulpit is seen by many as not only beneficial, but essential.

But the church cannot avoid politics. Its only options are what kinds of politics it will support, and whether it will do so intentionally or unintentionally.

“Presbyterian” is a political word. It describes how our community is ruled – by elders, not by popes or by mobs. Most Presbyterian decisions are made not by popular vote, but by the elders whom the people elect. Whom we elect as elders is critical to the health and welfare of the church. The Book of Order mandates that many mission-critical decisions are made by elders rather than by congregational vote: budgets, personnel decisions (except for electing pastors), property matters, and programs, just for starters.

“Politics” derives from polis, the Greek word for “city,” and describes how people in a community relate to each other. It refers both to their rules and to their rulers. As a gathering of people, the church is inevitably political.

Jesus calls the church a “city on a hill.” The ultimate embodiment of God’s reign is characterized in the book of Revelation as a city, the “new Jerusalem.” The church is at its core a polis.

As a polis, the church not only has internal politics, but is engaged with the politics of the larger world in which it is situated. Jeremiah’s word of the Lord to the polis of Jewish exiles in Babylon constitutes a political stance toward the surrounding Babylonian culture: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you in exile, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The essence of a polity that aligns with this biblical injunction is generosity. It aims to bless rather than to curse, to proclaim abundance and peace rather scarcity and fear.

As we move toward national election day in less than two weeks, we are being bombarded with politics that seek to tear down rather than to build up. The most obvious manifestation is attack ads, which everyone hates, and yet which have proven to be effective for winning elections.

Scathing mutual denunciations by political opponents is nothing new. But a more insidious politics of denial has been growing among us, expressed in the stoking of fear of the stranger, efforts to make it more difficult to vote, demonizing those who look and think differently from us, and more concern for our own rights and welfare than for the rights and welfare of others. It’s a “me first” politics, it aims to curtail the freedom of others while asserting the right to my own.

We all know well that Jesus teaches us to lay down our lives for others, something he modeled in his own embrace of the cross for the sake of the world. Thinking of others ahead of yourself is Christianity 101.

To put it another way, the politics of Jesus is a politics of generosity.

It is a politics that gives the benefit of the doubt. It is a politics that seeks to serve rather than to be served. It is a politics that seeks to build up rather than to tear down. It is a politics that seeks the best for others ahead of ourselves. It is a politics that is willing to yield, that does not insist on its own way. It is a politics more eager to listen rather than to speak.

I have heard it said that such politics might be fine for the church, but they won’t stand up in the public square. Alas, it is far rarer within the church than it ought to be. Rather than the politics of Jesus being something we practice in church in order to be readied to take it to the world, we get wrapped up in the politics of denial and denigration that prevail around us, and bring that into the church. Do our politics in church demonstrate conformity to the world, or the transformative power of the Gospel?

The first and most important political act of the church is to be true to itself by following the way of its Lord. Feed the hungry. Welcome the stranger. Wash each other’s feet. Be attentive to the children. Give, hoping for nothing in return.

It’s all about generosity.

When the church practices the politics of Jesus within its community, it necessarily reaches out to practice and advocate for the same in the world. It will most certainly be counter-cultural. For followers of Jesus, the same core principle guides our politics both within and beyond the community of faith – practice generosity.

As we go to the polls, I invite us to look for candidates who promote a generous spirit. We all will be better off if our politics reflects the generosity that is the hallmark of God’s reign that we pray will rule on earth, as it does in heaven.

Yours in the practice of generosity,

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