In the previous post we gathered up Paul’s thoughts on love and wrath on a global scale to walk into his difficult passage in Romans 13:1-7, where we defined establish, submit, and honor. Now it is our task to bring these lenses into our contemporary political climate and ask, “so what?”
I want to state once again: we have been given a spirit of advocacy, not accusation. This should challenge us to think about, not only how we engage with the political process itself, but also how we treat other people in that process. This spirit of advocacy, of course, stems from our unwavering belief that the only politics that will truly save us are God’s politics, where Jesus is King and our truest citizenship is in his Kingdom.
Here are three key challenges to the modern American Church that I often come back to in discussion with my community. These are by no means comprehensive, but perhaps they will give us some direction in maneuvering complex issues:
The Church must be creative and active. We cannot expect the government to do the church’s job. The constantianian mindset that our nation is a christian one often conflates the work of the church with the acts of government. This can be seen on both sides of the political spectrum today, whether it is a progressive cause like eliminating poverty and advocating for universal healthcare, or a conservative one like banning abortion or mandating the ten commandments in public schools. Too often church movements and their adherents promote a certain political party as a replacement for the work the church is called to do. This leads us to uncreative solutions to problems that can only be truly addressed by God’s faithful presence. Our response to real human brokenness becomes merely to legislate problems away. It also leads us to a false duality in which we either vote our faith or we let “the other side” win. This confrontational choice does not sit comfortably alongside Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies, our “Them”, which may bear another whole essay to unpack. Unfortunately, this lack of creativity confines our politics only to the voting booth and, perhaps more dangerously, hands over power and authority to the world’s governments to bring goodness.
The battle over marriage laws and definitions these past few years demonstrates how the unhealthy merging of politics and religion leads to passivity and lack of creative solutions. In many debates within the walls of the church it seemed few recognized much of the argument betrayed the fact that we needed earthly governments, not God, to define what exactly “marriage” is. It was not enough for us
This seems to be an underlying theme for many christians’ political actions in the public sphere: we ascribe to the US government an authority that actually belongs to God and/or responsibility for change that first-and-foremost rests on our collective shoulders. I recall an acquaintance several years ago mentioning our “God-given rights” to bear arms according to the second amendment. I couldn’t help but say something. That sort of gaffe reveals how much we have fuzzed the lines between America and the Kingdom of heaven.
The challenge for us today is to ask, whether or not we vote or lobby or march when it comes to government, what are we called to do as the Church? How do we carry God’s faithful presence into broken places in our society? How do we live as that heavenly colony, a city on a hill, a bastion of His goodness that heals and saves? These are the kinds of questions that will lead us to some radical, dramatic, and creative solutions beyond voting one way or the other.
The Church must have integrity. We cannot approve of laws or practices that undermine God’s law and desires for mankind. Our heavenly citizenship must challenge us to practically root ourselves more deeply in God’s truth and honestly examine the places where we may still be thinking out of empirical notions of right and wrong. Over the course of my personal spiritual development there have been many political positions that I have shifted on, and I hope I continue to shift so long as it is further into God’s rule. One important way for us to maintain integrity is to continuously ask ourselves how the lens of Christ might affect our assumptions. Self-reflection helps us to embrace nuance as christ-followers to transcend a dualistic conservative/liberal summary of engagement and see the complexities of being active today. What are movements today that we can and should advocate for because they may reveal something of God’s heart? What are laws or systems present today that encumber the desire to see all people met with dignity and, in turn, require a new way of thinking? So much of our call as christians is to name the goodness of God in a pluralistic world, much as Paul did in his visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-34). In this way we meet people in their own worldview, yet maintain integrity by inviting them to encounter God’s heart for them.
The Church must be reflective. Perhaps why we choose to engage or not engage is more interesting than whether or not we do. So much of Paul’s work is to challenge his spiritual children to peer below the surface of actions and beliefs to the heart motivations of why. Paul is confident enough in the Truth of God to know that some deep reflections should lead to a universal call for christians to act a certain way (our previous discussion of Romans 12 and 13, for example), while other issues may not have one conclusion, but a variety based on conviction. In Romans 14 we see apparent divergence on practices like food traditions and sabbath observation, yet Paul seeks the unifying motivations of all: “Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God…So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.” (v. 5b-6, 22). The final quote here is not that we are to obscure our beliefs, but that we maintain faithfulness to the Lord as the source of the decisions we make.
Let’s take perhaps the most obvious mode of political engagement as an example: should a christian vote, and if so, how?
First. We know we are in dangerous territory when we are told we must vote because it is our duty as citizens. This is an ironic statement in a democracy where freedom is defined by options, namely the option to not participate (either by passivity or protest, but that is another conversation all together). Totalitarian regimes making voting mandatory, which is why a dictator like Saddam Hussein could brag of 100% support in his heyday. As I have engaged with the thoughts of other christian leaders far more qualified than myself, I find compelling christian arguments both for and against participating in the political system by voting. The unifying conviction, however, seems to come in examining how we hold our right to vote. It is safe to say if we think for a moment our vote is all that is required of us or even that it is the same thing as doing the Lord’s work, we are in dire straits. This perspective props up the illusions mentioned above that the government is responsible to fulfill God’s plan and a vote gets us off the hook for pursuing His justice.
In fact, the catholic philosopher Alasdair McIntyre may shock us in his assertion that voting in some way validates the system itself, and is morally wrong. Whether or not you agree with his theory, we need outlying perspectives like this to show us a) there is more than one option, and b) to examine why we claim to believe what we believe. This is the path to growth when we engage with other ways to see: we either reinforce our own standing with new insight or we evolve our beliefs to match a greater kingdom perspective. Either way, that kind of true freedom opens us up to envision a better way.
Secondly: if we choose to vote, how do we decide? For too long the bane of the evangelical christian voting bloc has been the single-issue vote. One needn’t look farther than the abortion debate to see this in action (let alone the fact that “pro-choice” and “pro-life” have both been shown to be red herring euphemisms that mask the core issues). The single-issue vote attempts to oversimplify very complex ideas, often over-compartmentalizing them from other aspects of public life and health. It has been actually quite encouraging to see many voices in the modern church awaken to how interconnected the issues really are, whether it is healthcare, prison culture, systematic racism, or education, to name a few. Allowing the complexity of a societal structure and choosing to study the interconnectedness of these individual issues will help us see with greater clarity the underlying problems that need to be addressed if we desire to see real change. Just as in personal ministry we see alcohol is not the alcoholic’s issue but a bad solution to a deeper problem, so we see many of the issues we care about as christians are actually indicative of deeper systematic ailments. Otherwise we are only ever chasing symtoms.
Regardless of our individual convictions predicated on some deep reflection and willingness to be guided by faith, the universal challenge for christians endeavoring to be a faithful presence in the public sphere is this: Do you, on some level, think the US government will save you and/or bring about the Kingdom of God? how loosely do you hold your trust in the Empire? I think it is important to note this is less about diminishing the value of the structures of man as it is in having the highest regard for the kingdom of heaven. A small god and a small kingdom mentality will inevitably lead us to subconsciously find our confidence in the seemingly more tangible solutions of mankind to make peace and justice realities. My attempt in this series of posts has been to help us all have a drastically larger view of God as King and His incarnate kingdom, and to allow that Very Big Picture to shock us into examine where our priorities and allegiances truly lie. Only then can we effectively represent our Jesus to a world crying out for restoration. Consider these beautiful words from Bishop NT Wright in his book Simply Jesus:
“Jesus—the Jesus we might discover if we really looked, is larger, more disturbing, more urgent than we had ever imagined. We have successfully managed to hide behind other questions and to avoid the huge, world-shaking challenge of Jesus’s central claim and achievement. It is we, the churches, who have been the real reductionists. We have reduced the kingdom of God to private piety; the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience; Easter itself to a happy, escapist ending after a sad, dark tale. Piety, conscience, and ultimate happiness are important, but not nearly as important as Jesus himself.”
1. “On October 16, 2002, after a well-publicized show election, Iraqi officials declared that Saddam had been re-elected to another seven-year term as President by a 100% unanimous vote of all 11,445,638 eligible Iraqis, eclipsing the 99.96% received in 1995. Outside governments dismissed the vote as lacking credibility.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_Iraq
3. Rachel Held Evans has some very good thoughts on being pro-life yet learning to the the whole picture here.
4. Theologian Miroslav Volf offers a compelling take on voting holistically here. Bear with the clickbait-esque title. The video embedded in the article also brilliantly addresses the idea of being a christian in a pluralistic society.