Pastoral Thoughts For Politically Anxious Christians
Warning: This post is roughly three times the length of my average essay. My prayer, given the cultural moment that we are in, is that what lacks in brevity here will be made up for in recovery of gospel sanity. I welcome your comments, but please be kind.
Oh, and one more thing. If you live in the Nashville area, our church is hosting Election Week Politics Forum with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (Republican), former Obama aide, Michael Wear (Democrat), and yours truly, hosted by WKRN’s Samantha Fisher — this Sunday, November 4, from 4:00-5:30pm. If you and a friend would like to attend, space is filling up fast. You can secure your spot (and also childcare) at this link. Everything is free of charge.
I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them,
1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:
2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: and,
3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.
— John Wesley
SOMETIMES A SERMON CAN BE A POLARIZING THING. Once I was preaching to a crowd of New Yorkers about how Christians should respond to the problem of poverty. I will never forget two e-mails that I received the following week, both in reference to the same sermon. The writer of the first e-mail, among other things, accused me of being a right-wing extremist. The writer of the second e-mail said that he was certain that I must be a left-wing Marxist.
Time for a career change? I hope not.
There are few subjects that cause people to become more heated and opinionated than the subject of politics. Yet in the public discourse, the most heated and opinionated people seem to get nowhere with their heated opinions. During the 2012 presidential election, a friend of mine posted the following on his Facebook page:
Dear person passionately pushing your political agenda on Facebook,
Congratulations! You have convinced me to change my vote. Thank you for helping me see the light.
Appreciatively yours, No one.
When I received the two critical e-mails in response to my sermon about poverty, I shared them with Tim Keller, who at the time was my boss and mentor. Tim recommended that I seek to learn what I could from the experience, but not to worry too much about the negative feedback, because it could actually be a good sign. For us preachers, Tim said, the longer it takes people to figure out where we stand on politics, in all likelihood the more faithfully we are preaching Jesus.
As is the case with every paradox associated with Christianity, there is a both/and and a neither/nor component to Christianity as it relates to political loyalties. Unless a human system is fully centered on God (no human system is), Jesus will have things to affirm and things to critique about it. The political left and the political right are no exception.
That helps me. I hope it will help all of us, especially those who are tired of the rancor and caricature that so often accompany political discussions.
The Bible and Government
The first thing I want to say about government is that God is in favor of it. This should encourage anyone with a career in public service. Presidents, members of Congress, governors, mayors, aldermen and alderwomen, as well as police officers, military personnel, park and school district employees, and other public servants play an important role in God’s plan to renew the world.
The Bible identifies three institutions that God has established to resist decay in society and promote its flourishing. These are the nuclear family, the church, and the government. The focus of this chapter is to con- sider specifically what the Bible says about government. We know that Jesus paid taxes and encouraged his disciples to do the same.
As is the case with every paradox associated with Christianity, there is a both/and and a neither/nor component to Christianity as it relates to political loyalties.
To those living in Rome, whose government was not always friendly to Christians, the apostle Paul encouraged submission to the governing authorities, who are “ministers of God” and to whom taxes, respect, and honor are owed. Peter likewise tells believers that part of their service to the common good is to fear God and honor the Roman emperor.
The Bible also highlights God-fearing men and women who served in public office. Debra served as judge over Israel, Joseph served as prime minister for the Egyptian pharaoh, Daniel served in the court of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, and Nehemiah was a trusted official for the Persian king Artaxerxes. Jesus gave high praise to a Roman soldier for his exemplary faith. These and other examples confirm that government, whether in theocratic ancient Israel or secular Egypt, Babylon, Persia, or Rome, has always been part of God’s plan.
Whose Side Is Jesus On?
When it comes to politics, the Bible gives us no reason to believe that Jesus would side completely with one political viewpoint over another. Rather, when it comes to kings and kingdoms, Jesus sides with himself.
The following encounter between Joshua, an Israelite military commander headed into battle, and the angel of the Lord is instructive:
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15)
Lord, are you for us or for our adversaries? “No, I’m not,” he replies.
The question, then, is not whether Jesus is on our side but whether we are on his. This is the appropriate question not only for politics and government but also every other concern.
It may surprise us to know that there was political diversity among Jesus’ disciples. Included in the Twelve are Simon, a Zealot, and Matthew, a tax collector. This is significant because Zealots worked against the government, while tax collectors worked for the government. Interestingly, Matthew the tax collector emphasizes this diversity more than any of the other Gospel writers. Despite their opposing viewpoints, Matthew and Simon were friends, and Matthew wanted us to know this.
Matthew’s emphasis on a tax collector and a Zealot living in community suggests a hierarchy of loyalties, especially for Christians. Our loyalty to Jesus and his Kingdom must always exceed our loyalty to an earthly agenda, whether political or otherwise. We should feel “at home” with people who share our faith but not our politics even more than we do with people who share our politics but not our faith. If this is not our experience, then we very well may be rendering to Caesar what belongs to God.
People from varying political persuasions can experience unity under a single, first allegiance to Jesus the King, who on the cross removed and even “killed” the hostility between people on the far left, people on the far right, and people everywhere in between. Wherever the reign of Jesus is felt, differences are embraced and even celebrated as believers move toward one another in unity and peace.
Now let’s consider two different ways to look at politics. First, we will consider the world’s politics. Then we will look at the politics of God’s Kingdom.
The World’s Politics
In the eighteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, we see a clash between two governors: Pontius Pilate, the governor of Rome, and Jesus Christ, the governor of the universe.
Jesus is brought to Pilate by an angry mob. The mob charges Jesus with being an enemy of the state and a threat to Caesar’s preeminence. Pilate, wanting to hear the account directly from Jesus, asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.” Not sensing Jesus to be a threat, Pilate says dismissively to the crowd, “I find no guilt in him.” But then he makes a concession according to Jewish custom to release one man for them at the Passover. The crowd pressures Pilate to release Barabbas, a known murderer and insurrectionist, and to crucify Jesus in Barabbas’s place. Wanting to please the crowds, Pilate accommodates. Jesus, the innocent man, gets the death penalty. Barabbas, the guilty man, goes free. Modern politics can also work this way.
The goal of politics is to get people to support a particular vision for the world and to conduct their lives according to that vision. In pursuit of this goal, politicians today often use the same strategies that Jesus’ accusers and Pilate employed: misuse of power and manipulation of truth.
The Misuse of Power
The world’s politics rely heavily on power. Pilate finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place: he believes that Jesus is innocent; he also knows that Barabbas is guilty. Yet the calculating governor is desperate to please the crowds. As he considers the accusations against Jesus, he goes back and forth between his private chamber and then back out to the crowds. Though he knows who is innocent and who is not, he can’t decide whom to crucify and whom to set free.
What is happening here? We can assume that Pilate is taking the temperature of the crowd. He is assessing potential out- comes, discerning which course of action will be best for his own approval rating as well as the preservation of his own stat- ure. His conscience makes him reluctant to crucify Jesus, yet he wants the favor of the crowd. But in worldly politics, when conscience and the crowd are at odds with one another, the crowd always wins. When the crowd always wins, bad people can go free and good people suffer.
I love the animated movie Shrek for many reasons. There is so much about the human experience that the film gets right. One such example is the pitiful little ruler of the land, Lord Farquaad.
Farquaad is a single man. The one thing he feels is missing from his kingdom is the lovely princess Fiona, who has long been locked up in a castle far away, guarded by a deadly, fire-breathing dragon. There have been many failed attempts to rescue Fiona; many would-be rescuers have lost their lives.
Farquaad gathers his bravest knights together for a competition. The knights are placed inside an arena to duel against each other until only one of them is left standing. The prevailing knight will have the “honor” of going out on Lord Farquaad’s behalf to rescue Fiona. Farquaad, himself a coward, offers the following “inspirational” speech to the knights before they turn against each other in the arena:
Brave knights, you are the best and brightest in all the land. Today one of you shall prove himself. That champion shall have the honor—no, no—the privilege to go forth and rescue the lovely Princess Fiona from the fiery keep of the dragon. If for any reason the winner is unsuccessful, the first runner-up will take his place and so on and so forth. Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.
The world’s politics. Your hopes, desires, ambitions, good name—and, if necessary, your life—are worth sacrificing in order to protect and advance my agenda. And I will use my power, the authority of my office, to ensure that this happens. Some of you may die. But it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make. The ends justify the means.
Manipulation of the Truth
The world’s politics are also laced with manipulation of the truth, also known as “spin.” We see this in the exchange between Pilate and the accusing crowds. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews, Pilate is not interested in spiritual matters. He wants the answer to one question: Is this man a threat to my power? Is he an enemy of Caesar, and therefore also my enemy? What is the size of his following? What is his agenda? What kind of momentum is there behind his movement?
Pilate would not be asking any of these questions about Jesus had the crowds not spun Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God to mean that Jesus was an enemy of the state. In reality this is a silly and baseless accusation, because Christ’s teaching directs his followers to honor those in authority in every way possible. This being true, to the degree that Christians follow the teachings of Jesus, they will actually be perceived as the most refreshing and cooperative citizens of any earthly kingdom.
Pilate’s agenda was of no concern to Jesus’ accusers, because Jesus’ growing influence threatened the status quo for them as well. In order to keep Jesus at bay, they created a false narrative about him and went public with it. Eventually it got him killed.
How about us? Are we also prone to exaggerate, spin, and tell half-truths to protect (or usurp) the status quo? How easy it can be to get pulled in to the politics of spin. Some of us have become so used to these tactics and so numb to them that we—yes, even we who claim to be people of truth—have become willing participants in the spin:
On this side of the aisle is our candidate, the answer to all of the world’s problems. She can do no wrong. On that side of the aisle is their candidate, the reason for all of the world’s problems. He can do no right.
Are such partisan caricatures and political absolutes a Christian practice, or are they decidedly un-Christian? What do you think?
Leaning toward a certain party is one thing (Matthew did it, Simon did it, and Jesus allowed it), but it is important to see that a partisan spirit can actually run against the Spirit of God. If there ever was a partisan crowd in the Bible, it was the crowd that pressured Pilate to crucify Jesus instead of Barabbas. Barabbas, a true criminal, went free while Jesus, an innocent man, was executed after having his impeccable character assassinated. This is the essence of partisanship. Partisans inflate the best features of their party while inflating the worst features, real or contrived, of the other party. They ignore the weaknesses of their own party while dismissing the other party’s strengths.
I have good friends on both sides of the political aisle. I trust them. Many of them—on both sides—have a strong commitment to their faith. Because of this I grow perplexed when Christian men and women willingly participate in spin—ready, willing, and armed to follow the world in telling half-truths to promote their candidates, while telling more half-truths to demonize their opponents. Have we forgotten that a half-truth is the equivalent of a full lie? What’s more, political spin is polarizing even within the community of faith.
A Generational Shift
As a pastor I have been struck by what appears to be a strong reaction among the millennial generation (young adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five) toward the faith of their baby boomer parents. Some surveys suggest that millennials are either leaving the church or adopting an altogether different expression of Christianity than the one in which they were raised. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, reporter Brian Hiatt asked Marcus Mumford whether he still considers himself a Christian. Mumford, a pastor’s son and a famous millennial (he is lead singer of the band Mumford & Sons), had this to say:
I don’t really like [the word Christian]. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. . . . I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.
When those who feel a need to distance themselves from Christianity are asked why, Mumford and other millennials cite several reasons. At the top of the list is weariness over the association of right-wing politics with mainstream Christianity. The “culture of Christianity” that Mumford and others want no part of tends to trace directly back to this association. In the realm of politics, millennials have culture-war fatigue.
With this has come a pendulum swing. Wearied by their parents’ right-leaning politics, many millennials have shifted toward the political left. There are good things about this phenomenon. Younger, more progressive-minded believers are bringing a renewed zeal for biblical values such as service, care for the poor, inclusion of people on the margins, ethnic and cultural diversity, and other forms of social justice into their communities. What one wonders, however, is how a generational shift to the political left will play out in the long run. Do millennials risk repeating their parents’ errors, the only difference being a co-opting of blue-state sensibilities into faith instead of red-state ones? Will their children sense an imbalance in them as well? Only time will tell.
The Politics of God’s Kingdom
Please don’t hear me saying that it is wrong for a Christian to support one political party over another. Christians have liberty in things that are nonessential, including politics; that’s the point I am trying to make here. The political left and the political right both have good things to say, and both have their problems as well. It can be damaging to think otherwise.
For example, during the 1992 presidential elections a friend of mine told me about an awkward moment in his Bible study. One of the group members expressed excitement because that Sunday, she had seen a bumper sticker promoting the “other party” in the church’s parking lot. She was excited because, to her, this was an indication that non-Christians had come to visit. Imagine the awkwardness when another member of the group chimed in, “Um . . . that’s my bumper sticker that you saw.”
Can we talk? If a Zealot and a tax collector share a com- mon faith that transcends opposing political loyalties, then left-leaning and right-leaning believers must do the same. It is wrong to question someone’s faith because they don’t vote like you do. Yes, wrong.
It’s Not about Which Side of the Aisle
More recently, a member of our church asked me if I could help him find a Bible study group filled with people he doesn’t agree with politically. This really encouraged me, because it shows that there are indeed some Christians who value the growth and sharpening that can come from diversity, including political diversity. This is a man who, unlike those whose maturing process is stunted by blind partisan loyalty, is on a fast track toward greater maturity. As he opens himself to learn from the perspective of others, he also moves toward Jesus, who is neither conservative nor liberal, yet is also both.
In many ways, Jesus is more conservative than the far right. For instance, he says that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”11 He warns that anyone who adds to or takes away from the words of his Book will not share in the tree of life or the Holy City. He emphasizes the importance of evangelism and conversion and said that unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God. These are all hallmarks of today’s conservative Christians.
Jesus is also in many ways more liberal than the far left. In saying repeatedly, “You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . . ,” he upends the long-held traditions of his time, establishing a new vision for the world for anyone who would receive it. In this, Jesus is quite subversive with respect to the cultural norms of his time. He says that traditional Jews and modern Gentiles should not separate, but should stay in community together, and that serving the poor is central to his mission.14 That’s all very progressive of him.
How Do We Know We Are on God’s Side?
The politics of God’s Kingdom are different from the world’s politics. Kingdom politics reject the world’s methods of misusing power and manipulating the truth. What does it look like for Christians to live out Jesus’ Kingdom vision in our daily lives? It looks like taking care of widows and orphans, advocating for the poor, improving economies, paying taxes, honoring those in authority, loving our neighbors, pursuing excellence at work, and blessing those who persecute us. When this happens, kings, presidents, governors, mayors, law enforcement officers, park officials, and other public servants will take notice. Those in authority will begin to see Christians as an asset to society. They will recognize and appreciate that Christians, as citizens first and foremost of God’s Kingdom, value leaving the world in better shape than we found it. Consider these words from C. S. Lewis:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. . . . The conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.
Let’s consider for a moment what history does in fact tell us.
Christianity Has Always Thrived Most as a Life-Giving Minority, Not a Political Majority
Some believe that putting Christians in office and other places of power is the key to transforming the world. “If only there were more people in power who followed Jesus,” the reasoning goes, “that would be the game changer that would finally make the world what God intends it to be.” While it is indeed a very good thing for Christians to serve in public office, neither the Bible nor history supports the idea that holding positions of power is the key to bringing God’s Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. On this point, Jesus’ own resistance to earthly power is telling. At the peak of his popularity, the people wanted him to be king. But he had a different agenda: “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
Why would Jesus resist earthly power? Why would even a “politician” after God’s own heart, King David, tell us not to trust in chariots, horses, or princes? Because Christianity always flourishes most as a life-giving minority, not as a powerful majority. It is through subversive, countercultural acts of love, justice, and service for the common good that Christianity has always gained the most ground.
For example, Christians in ancient Rome faced severe opposition and persecution from the state. Yet in this climate, believers had “favor with all the people” because of the refreshing way in which they loved all their neighbors. Following many failed attempts to exterminate Christians from Rome, the emperor Julian wrote a letter to his friend Arsacius. In the letter, Julian conceded that the more he tried to destroy Christians, the more their movement grew. Said the emperor, “The impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well.”
When did Christianity begin to falter in Rome? It began when a later emperor, Constantine, sought to impose Christianity on all of Rome as the state religion. The results were disastrous. Rather than becoming more like the city of God, Rome went into spiritual decline, and the salt of early Christianity eventually lost its savor. The same can be said of many European countries. When those in power made Christianity the state religion, the church began its decline toward irrelevance. More recently, the so-called Moral Majority sought to bring “Christian values” to American society through political activism and “taking a stand” for what they believe. Unfortunately for them, this strategy has had a reverse effect.
Christianity Embraces Both Conservative and Progressive Values
The Kingdom of Jesus does not advance through spin, political maneuvering, manipulation of power, or “taking a stand” for what we believe (do we ever see Jesus, or for that matter Paul or any of the apostles, taking a stand against secular society or government?). Rather, the Kingdom of Jesus advances through subversive acts of love—acts that flow from conservative and progressive values. This is the beauty of the Christian movement. It embraces the very best of both points of view, while pushing back on the flaws, shortcomings, and injustices inherent in both.
How does this work? By the third century, in spite of a government that stood against religious freedom (except for the freedom to worship Caesar), the social fabric of Rome had been transformed for the better. Believers in Christ were the chief contributors to this transformation. Here are a few examples:
First, Christians led the way in the movement for women’s equality. At that time there were double standards in Rome with respect to gender. A woman was expected to be faithful to her husband, while a man could have multiple mistresses and wives. Unmarried and childless women were ostracized. If a woman’s husband died, she had two years to find a new husband before the state would withdraw support and she would likely starve. Christians took up the cause of women, giving them prominent places of honor in the church, taking care of widows as if they were family, and insisting that men be faithful to their wives. In spite of prevailing cultural values, a Christian man was expected to be either single or a “one-woman man,” the husband of one wife. The virtue of monogamous sexuality within marriage—a conservative value today—was at play. But so was the progressive virtue of equality—men could no longer treat women as inferior.
Second, infanticide was prominent in early Rome. There was no prevailing ethic of life except that certain lives were expendable. Consider this excerpt from a letter by a man named Hilarion to his wife, Alis, who was expecting a child. Hilarion was away on business and sent these instructions about the child in Alis’s womb:
Do not worry if when all others return I remain in Alexandria. I beg and beseech of you to take care of the little child, and, as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. If—good luck to you!—you have a child, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, throw it out. You told Aphrodisias to tell me: “Do not forget me.” How can I forget you? I beg you therefore not to worry.
It is stunning how upbeat he is toward his wife on the one hand, and how heartless he is toward the child on the other . . . if it is a girl, that is. “If it is a girl, throw it out.” Sadly, this was all too common in Rome. Christians, however, became known for taking up the cause of orphans (girls, children of other races or with special needs—it didn’t matter) by welcoming them into their families and raising them to adulthood. Here we have the conservative virtue of protecting the unborn plus the progressive virtues of championing female equality and social justice.
Third, as in Hitler’s Germany, the poor in Rome were coldly viewed as “useless eaters,” a drain on society. But in Christian communities the poor were treated with dignity and honor. There was a spirit of compassion and generosity among Christians, which manifested in the sharing of wealth to narrow the income gap—a progressive value. But generosity was voluntary, not forced—a conservative value. I once heard someone say that though the early Christians were monogamous with their bodies, they were promiscuous with their wallets.
My friend Erik Lokkesmoe says that it is the job of Christians to help certain parts of government become unnecessary. Of course he does not mean there should be no government at all, just less need for government in those areas that Scripture entrusts to the church’s care. God gave us government to restrain evil and uphold the peace in society. He gave us the church to (among other things) champion the cause of the weak, heal the sick, feed the hungry, and show hospitality to people on the margins. With his statement, Erik calls the church to a renewed vision of being a countercultural movement that works for the good of all.
The Kingdom of God advances on earth as it is in heaven when the people of God, loved and kept by Jesus, assume a public faith that includes, but is certainly not limited to, government. Public faith enriches the world not by grasping for earthly power, but through self-donation. This is how Jesus transformed Jerusalem. This is how Christianity transformed Rome. This is how Christianity can transform any society, including our own.
“Seek first the kingdom of God . . . , and all these things will be added to you.”
* This post is an excerpt from Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who are Tired of Taking Sides, and is used by permission of Tyndale House.
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