Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” would make an excellent political platform, the president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors told a gathering of 100 at San Francisco Theological Seminary’s annual Faith and the Common Good lecture here April 19.
“These words ― about the blessing of the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers ― could be spoken in every rotunda and legislative chamber in the country,” said David Chiu, who is in his second term as head of San Francisco’s legislative body, representing one of the most diverse districts in the city.
“But, unfortunately, most of us in public office don’t think about them or ignore them, said Chiu, a member of Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. “The idea of peacemakers seems absent and is remarkably difficult in political settings, particularly polarized ones like today.”
The purpose of the Faith and the Common Good lecture ― endowed by SFTS emeritus professor John Hadsell and his late wife, Virginia ― “is to be inspired by people of faith who serve others in their vocations.” Chiu clearly relished the opportunity to speak here.
“I am often asked how I got my politics,” he said. “Tonight for the first time, I’ve been asked how I got my faith.” Chiu’s rise to political prominence has a number of SFTS ― and SFTS President Jim McDonald ― connections.
The son of Taiwanese immigrants ― his mother Christian and his father Buddhist ― Chiu went to work for Illinois Senator Paul Simon after finishing law school. McDonald was working for Simon’s brother, Art Simon ― founder of Bread for the World.
Chiu and Simon fought the same Washington stereotype. “It’s disappointing because national political leaders talk about religion but it’s conservative, right-wing beliefs, from the Christian Coalition to the Tea Party,” Chiu said. “There’s this strong public sense that any Christian politician comes from this point of view.”
Chiu said he “comes from a more progressive place and has hoped for 20 years that we can better represent a more progressive Christianity, but liberals have disappointed too,” he added, “arguing for a strict separation of church and state, thus minimizing religion.”
When Paul Simon retired from the U.S. Senate because of its growing polarization, Chiu returned to his native San Francisco and began to become heavily involved in community affairs. His day job was as a criminal prosecutor in the San Francisco district attorney’s office, but he soon tired of that.
“I stopped being a prosecutor because I was spending all my time putting all these young black and brown men in jail for petty, mostly minor drug offenses,” he said. “The disparities based on race are simply unjust ― akin to slavery. The marijuana these kids were smoking is less harmful than the white wine we had before dinner tonight.”
Chiu’s pastor at Calvary Church, the Rev. Laird Stuart ― who served as interim president of SFTS prior to the calling of McDonald ― “really helped me think about the connection between faith and public service,” Chiu said.
Chiu’s decision to seek public office “was prompted by a little bit of insanity,” he said, “but I’ve always been fascinated by politics and public policy … and I was seeing situations in my district that needed to be addressed and weren’t.”
In office, Chiu says his role models are “religious leaders who are also political leaders” ― Martin Luther King Jr., farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez and Gandhi.
Chiu said he has also come to realize “how close my job is to that of pastors ― we are all looking for ways to address the life and health of our communities. I can learn a lot from them.”
He urged churches and their pastors and members to get more involved in community life.
“There are so many opportunities to get involved locally,” Chiu said, “ministry to the soul and to the body of all our people.”