St. John's Lutheran Church | 391 Mount Hope Road, Middletown, NY 10940 | 845.342.1963 | email@example.com
“Why I didn’t march”
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
As most of you are aware, on Saturday, March 24th, there were marches around the country, in Washington, DC, and even here in Middletown, called “March for Our Lives.” These marches were organized by both students and adults, after the school shooting deaths in Florida, as a protest against gun violence in the schools, and to advocate for specific legislation, which the organizers believe will address the real problem of gun violence in our schools and in our greater society.
As the President of the Greater Middletown Interfaith Council, and as your pastor, I was invited to participate in the Middletown march. Indeed I was asked to wear my “pastoral clothing” (I think that means my black shirt and white collar) and stand near the front line of the march and the rally that followed. I gave the matter some serious thought, and then I respectfully declined that invitation, and I would like to explain why.
I learned many years ago, that as a pastor serving in a congregation, I do not just represent myself. Like it or not, I represent all of you and our entire congregation. For example, when I am invited to pray at the Orange County 9/11 Memorial each September, I am not just invited as a retired Navy Chaplain. I am first listed as the Pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Middletown. The things I say, the way I look, and the way I conduct myself, is a reflection on all of you as well as our congregation. As your pastor, I must always be mindful to distinguish between my own personal opinions, and those that represent our congregation.
Like most of you, I have very strong opinions when it comes to politics and the many social issues our country is wrestling with. At the same time, I try very hard to keep my own opinions out of the pulpit, where I believe they do not belong. Yes I voted in the 2016 Presidential Election, but you never heard me tell you even once, from the pulpit, who it was that I voted for or why. This has been true in every election since I was first ordained in 1982. I was criticized by some of you back in 2016 (from both the Clinton and Trump sides) for not revealing who I voted for, and who I thought you should vote for. I take that criticism as a badge of honor. I have no desire to influence your vote in any way. That is a personal decision that should be based upon your faith, your beliefs, and your own reasoning and thoughts. Frankly, people of faith often disagree, and I think that is a good thing.
You see, I am a big believer (as most Lutherans are) in free will. God gave us brains to think with, to reason with, and with which to come up with our own conclusions. We each have the responsibility to apply our faith and our Biblical understandings, and bring those to bear on the decisions we have to make as citizens. I do not believe there is a preferred “Christian candidate” for any office. Indeed, I might vote for a Jewish, a Muslim, or even an atheist candidate if I felt he or she was a better choice than the Christian candidate. For me to suggest who you should vote for, would cheapen the proclamation of God’s Word that I have been called by God to proclaim, and long ago I decided that I would never try to do that.
So when it came to the “March for Our Lives” I saw the same issues at play. If it was a march just to end violence, I would have gladly participated and stood at the front of the line, even in my black “pastor shirt.” When it became clear to me that the March would have political overtones, such as advocating for specific legislation, and against certain candidates, I decided that I could not participate. On the other hand, if the National Rifle Association were having their own event to promote their own point-of-view on this same issue, I would decline to participate in that as well, for the very same reasons.
I encourage all of you to be involved politically, march when and where you want to march. That is a wonderful thing. Freedom of speech is one of the great blessings of being an American. As your pastor, I will continue to guard my personal positions very carefully. I might even be willing to discuss politics with you privately, but not while I am “wearing the black shirt” or the “white robe and stole” of the pastoral office.
Now I know that most clergy do not see it the way I do. Many pastors jump into political debates with both feet. One of the “March” organizers, in fact, was one of my fellow clergy friends in the Greater Middletown Interfaith Council. He is still my friend. He just sees his pastoral office differently than I do.
During 2016 there were reports of both Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump speaking from the pulpits of Christian churches and at religious rallies. Cleary I find that both dangerous and offensive to the way I understand the Christian Church and its faith. God’s church, God’s pulpit, God’s altar, should never be used to advance anyone’s personal agenda, so matter whether we personally agree or disagree with it. I do not so much blame the candidates for this, as I blame the churches and the pastors who permitted it to happen. When some churches do that, I think it cheapens the proclamation of Christ’s message for every Christian church.
So while I hope and pray that answers will be found to stem the tide of violence in our schools and in our land, as your pastor I will not be in the forefront of those efforts, at least when it comes to politics, protest, and proposed legislative changes. Our job is to combat sin wherever it is found, and find ways to foster peace and reconciliation in this troubled world. Following the example of Jesus is surely a good place to start. As a citizen, of course, I have my own thoughts on this and many subjects, but you will not be hearing about them from the pulpit, or seeing me at the forefront of any marches or rallies, no matter how well-meaning they might be.
Being a pastor is a great privilege and a great responsibility, one I try to guard very carefully. I accept that many of you will disagree with what I have written here. Even when you disagree with me, I ultimately have to answer first to God for the trust he has placed upon me. I only pray each day that I have been faithful, or least that I have tried. That is the best any of us can do!
In the love of the Risen Christ,
Pastor Rustico +
St. John's Lutheran Church