(Note: This post is adapted from a talk Joel gave November 1st, 2015 at Mountain Brook Community Church)
People are losing their minds over the disaster that is otherwise knows as US presidential politics. You mean, you haven’t noticed?
Unfortunately, among those whose reason and sense have flown out the window, are Christians. In short, this debacle has exposed us as a people. It’s time for us to become more thoughtful with regard to how we engage the political circus sphere.
There are those who say that Christians and churches shouldn’t be engaged in politics. According to this view, the best witness is to be intentionally and prophetically unengaged.
I’m sympathetic to this argument and can accept it, depending on what is meant by unengaged. If by this, we mean that Christians shouldn’t allow ourselves to co-opted by any particular political party, then of course I agree.
If however, we mean that Christians shouldn’t attempt to live as a faithful witness in the public square, this is impossible and unrealistic.
“Politics” comes from the Greek word polis. Polis means “city” in Greek, but it became shorthand for the idea and concept of a citizenry, or the body of citizens in any given place.
Politics, therefore, has to do with those things that are of concern when diverse groups of people share a common life together; those things that extend beyond any particular family or tribe.
Politics is a way for us to realize that our families and groups occupy a common geography with other families and groups, and, therefore, there must be some way that we negotiate those affairs and organize this common life. This is politics. At least, this is what politics is supposed to be about. Which, I agree, has almost nothing to do with the circus act we are currently seeing on TV.
The tribalism and hostility we see in America already betrays the term and task. Most Americans, and Christians maybe especially, have engaged the political sphere according a false notion of what it is all supposed to be about. This is as unhelpful as it is tragic.
It’s time for us to think deeper, and fortunately, it turns out we aren’t the first group of Christians who have thought about these things. There is, as always, a rich tradition of reflection on these ideas.
What follows are three foundational concepts that form a basis for Christian political engagement. To my mind, these are three concepts that Christians need to have up-and-running, to have hung in the corners of their thinking when it comes to the intersection of faith and politics.
- The Common Good
Christians have always understood that our primary charge is to love our neighbor. And to unpack that concept further, Christians have always understood a responsibility to the common good. As we make decision about politics, a Christian always asks this question, “What promotes the common good, not just for my ‘group’ but for all?”
Of course, when we ask this question, inevitable tensions arrive. A Christian vision of the common good, and what constitutes the common good, will be categorically different that what the world envisions. But, we still have to ask the question.
Christians, unfortunately, have swallowed the tribal identity politics hook, line, and sinker. We subscribe to what one thinker calls a “narrative of injury”: we believe we have been wronged and cheated. So, we circle our wagons, and defend ourselves from attack, and become as nasty as any other group. We do not always do this intentionally. It’s just that we have drunk so deeply of this deeply unchristian way of thinking about politics (a way of thinking we get from Nietzsche, quite frankly) that we cannot do/or even conceive of politics otherwise.
Now, as a Christian, you are welcome to certain political views, but you have to hold those views only after you have carefully thought about what would serve the common good.
- Two Kingdoms
Jesus’ conversation with Pilate in John 18 is instructive. Go read the whole thing. Pilate cannot comprehend what the heck Jesus is talking about. Pilate, in essence, is trying to strike a political deal. But Jesus isn’t playing ball.
From this text, and others, Christians have recognized, and unpacked to varying degree, the implications of a two-kingdom approach. The bottom line is this: We are citizens of one kingdom (Christ’s) before we are citizens of another (America). Full stop.
Our political views, in other words, will be fraught with difficulty as we try to hold these two tensions.
A guy I know, who has spent much time working in Washington DC, says, “Think about it. The Christian vote should be the hardest to get.”
There are just so many tensions in a Christian appraisal of political positions.
Perhaps immigration serves as a fitting example. Issues of national security, issues of controlling drug trafficking, issues of rule of law are important. When run through the “common good” filter, we can make a case for bringing immigration under greater degree of care and wisdom and prudence.
However, we are Christians. And as such, we have to learn how to proceed with an issue like immigration while at the same time holding the tension of the Bible’s clear, clear, clear commands to exercise concern for the what the Old Testament would call the “sojourner” or the “stranger.”
It is such a prominent idea in the Bible. Try taking a pair of scissors and cutting out all mentions of the stranger, and the need to show them grace, in the Old Testament. You’ll cut the thing to pieces. (Don’t actually do this, you see my point.)
This “sojourner” in the Old Testament becomes the closest thing that we have to the immigrant, and the Bible has much to say about this. And yes, the fact that it is in the Old Testament, and that we are not Israel, doesn’t cancel our responsibility to emulate the ethic.
We are citizens of one kingdom (Christ’s) before we are citizens of another (America) and our political views must reflect this.
- The Quiet Life
There are times to stand up and engage the political sphere for the sake of standing up against injustices. The witness of a Bonhoeffer and a Martin Luther King Jr. teach us this. I affirm this wholeheartedly and I encourage Christians to choose their spots on this and proceed with wisdom and prudence and follow their conscience. We can (and should perhaps) make “stands.”
However, I’m drawn to and fascinated by another strand of teaching in the New Testament. Paul’s words to Timothy have intrigued me of late.
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Here, Paul encourages prayer for the government and he connects all of this to “a quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” I’m not sure what is passing for Christian political engagement on Facebook could be called “quiet”, “godly” or “dignified.”
Could it be that, as Christians, we are called to the mission of the gospel, and every now and then, it might aid our cause to fly under the radar a bit? Paul speaks here of laying low with regard to the government, because it can aid a gospel witness.
Again, the “common good” principle means we engage, and even stand up against injustice. But, throwing it out there for your consideration, can we also look for ways to lay-low, for the sake of the gospel, and for the common good?
Something like this is being encouraged of the Exiles in Jeremiah 29.
To this, some might say, “Joel are you really saying we sit back and watch people take from us, and walk all over us? And just endure that? Suffer that?”
Not necessarily. But to endure and suffer for righteousness in the face a hostile and chaotic world seems like such a New Testament thing to do.
Common Good, Two Kingdoms, and Quiet Life: Three things to think as we wade our way through the days.