Following Jesus Into A Political No-Man’s Land
Partisan politics tend to stir emotions more than just about any subject. They bring out the best in us, and also the worst. Like religion, politics can be polarizing and divisive, something we avoid at the dinner table. God invented government, but man invented politics. I suppose that therein lies the problem. The good things that God creates, we tend to corrupt, in spite of our best efforts not to do so.
An election season like the one we are in currently is an opportunity for Christians to stand out as a thoughtful, fair-minded, loving, and sometimes prophetic minority. To the degree that believers in Jesus can align with Jesus’ approach to political issues and the sharp disagreements surrounding them, the world will take notice. More important, the world might have an opportunity to become a better place.
Similarly, Christians wishing to follow the whole Scripture and the whole Jesus in the whole of life—including the realm of politics—will eventually find themselves standing in a bit of a no-man’s land, often alone and always misunderstood. As one friend of mine says, the most faithful Christians are going to be too liberal for their conservative friends, and too conservative for their liberal friends.
Take, for example, a Tweet I posted a few days ago, which reads as follows:
Christians who say Democrats are the answer, why your silence / ambivalence re: the unborn (more of my thoughts on that here)? Christians who say Republicans are the answer, why your silence / ambivalence re: those seeking refuge (more of my thoughts on that here)? A boldly partisan Christian, in all its forms, is a contradiction in terms.
If you scroll through the comments on that one, single Tweet, you’ll see quite a few unhappy campers, some expressing outrage from the left, and others from the right.
And so it goes…
I want to propose that the most important question to ask as a Christian in times such as these is not, “Is God on our side?” but rather “Are we on his?”
So then, what do the politics of Jesus look like? And are we on his side in this crazy, partisan climate of ours?
Here are a few thoughts for you to consider…
Only one true King
A band of secular and religious leaders try to trick Jesus with a question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” they ask. Then they hand him a coin.
The inscription on the coin says, “Tiberius King, Son of the God Augustus Maximus, High Priest.” With this inscription, the Roman Emperor is claiming deity, and thus absolute authority, over all the people in the empire. Rome was a totalitarian regime in which defectors—those who would not bow to the sovereign lordship of the State—would be executed on a cross.
Jesus gives an unexpected answer. He holds up the coin and asks, “Whose image is on this coin?”
“Caesar’s,” they reply.
“Well then, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”
In other words, the coin is imprinted with Caesar’s image, so the coin belongs to him. But you—all of you—are imprinted with God’s image, so you belong to God. The coin is Caesar’s, so give the coin up to him. You are God’s so give yourselves up to God.
How brilliant. Not only does Jesus blunt the trap they set for Him, but He establishes the proper ordering of things when it comes to kings and kingdoms.
On the one hand, the citizens of God’s kingdom must endeavor to be the very best and most exemplary citizens of earthly kingdoms. Even power-hungry leaders like Caesar should feel the positive ripple effect of Christian love toward people and places. However, none but God is entitled to absolute, unfettered loyalty. God alone is King, and His kingdom is not of this world. When God’s kingdom and earthly kingdoms collide, render yourselves unto God … and only to God.
If ever there was a partisan crowd in the Bible, it was the crowds of Mark 15—that famous chapter in which Pilate, so it appears, is entrusted with Jesus’ fate. Here we find the crowds begging Pilate to release Barabbas, a political zealot, a murderer, and a purveyor of chaos. In his stead, they demand execution for Jesus. Jesus, who has been doing everything that a true revolutionary should—feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the poor—must die.
“Crucify Him!” shouts the partisan crowd. Barabbas, the man of violence, is embraced as a freedom fighter. Jesus, the man of peace, is caricatured and crucified as an enemy of the state.
This is what partisans do, especially the bold ones. Bold partisans exaggerate the best features of their side and the worst features, real or contrived, of the opposing side. They minimize and overlook the weaknesses of their side, while dismissing the best features of the opposing side.
It’s discouraging how easily we Christians can get drawn in to partisan melodrama. How easy it is to participate in the politics of spin and caricature—ready and willing to tell half-truths to promote our candidates and tell more half-truths to demonize our opponents. Bearing false testimony is always unbecoming of a follower of Jesus.
John Wesley once wrote the following during a heated political season:
For people who will vote, I urge them to vote for those they judge most worthy, and to speak no evil against the person they voted against, and to take care that their spirits are not sharpened against people who voted on the other side.
Yes, John Wesley, yes.
Political platforms and “Christian values”
We must recognize that the Bible does not endorse one particular platform over another. Some may argue that their party supports “Christian values” and the other party does not. Both the “Christian left” and the “Christian right” make this claim in every election cycle.
But this raises the question, whose Christian values? Which Christian values are we talking about? Are we talking about justice and protection for the unborn? Or are we talking about justice and protection for the poor? The right to hold private property? Or our obligation to care for foreigners and aliens in our midst? Are we promoting the value of an environment in which every able-bodied person has the opportunity and obligation to earn his/her own keep? Or an environment in which just wages, equal pay for equal work, and basic human rights are guaranteed for all people everywhere?
According to the Bible, these are all “Christian” values derived not only from common sense, but from the sacred Scriptures themselves. It is indisputable that both parties—yes, both—will emphasize some of these biblical ideals, but not all of them. It is also indisputable that both parties—yes, both—fail to honor the full range of truth, justice, and freedom that the Scriptures call for in a Kingdom that is truly “from heaven.”
To equate left-leaning or right-leaning politics with Christianity fails to honor the biblical teaching. Jesus has affirmations as well as sharp critiques for both platforms. As for government itself, God created it. Therefore, government itself is a good and needed thing. Still, the kingdom of God is not, and was never intended to be, of this world. In this world and for this world, yes; of this world, no.
The point is this: Under Jesus, political loyalties lose their intimacy. People who disagree with each other politically can also enjoy friendship and common ground as they identify first and foremost as followers of Jesus. Whenever this happens, worldly methods like caricature, spin, and partisan absolutism fade from their politics.
The only Kingdom that can (and surely will) truly change the world
The key to changing the world is not first and foremost having a Republican in power. Neither is it having a Democrat in power.
Yes, government is important. God designed it. God often chooses to make good things happen through government, just as He does through business, the arts, healthcare, academics, the family, and other spheres of influence. When government is at its best, human society enjoys greater flourishing and peace. But government is not, and it was never meant to be, the answer to all the world’s problems. “Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.”
By the third century A.D., in spite of a government that stood against religious freedom, Roman society had been transformed for the better, and Christians played a huge part in this.
Christians led the way in insisting that women share equal dignity with men. They took up the cause for orphans, adopting and caring for unwanted and vulnerable children. Among Christians, the sick and the poor were treated with dignity and special honor—including those who were not Christians. Roman society took notice, and within three generations Rome was transformed. People ceased to look to Rome as the ultimate solution to society’s problems. Instead, they looked to the followers of Jesus and their radical, everyday, self-donating love.
The world changes and the kingdom of God advances as the people of God “season” and penetrate their neighborhoods, communities, places of work, and cities with neighbor-love, with joy in their hearts because Jesus has done the same for them. The world also changes as Christians partner with their non-Christian neighbors, colleagues, and friends in seeking to make the world a better place. Whether Christian or not, as long as there are people working for the common good, we can (and should) lock arms with them.
In this, we become supporters, not subjects, of our government. This is how God designed it to be. This is the biblical ideal.
Jesus gains power by surrendering power
Put Barabbas to death and it ends his revolution.
Put Jesus to death and it launches his.
As the crowds panicked and grasped for power, Jesus sat quietly and non-defensively, resolved and ready to die as He awaited His unjust sentence from the Roman state.
Panic and grasping for power is the way of the world.
Remaining calm, loving, and non-defensive, no matter what the political outcomes, is the way of Jesus—and of His followers who have their kingdoms rightly ordered. “Do not fear, little flock, for I am with you,” says the King. Do not rejoice when you find yourselves in temporary positions of power and influence, Jesus says, “but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 12:32, 10:20).
Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Render to God what is God’s.
A way forward
So then, as we in the United States consider the election of another new slate of leaders, perhaps we can take a step back and remember a few things.
First, the shoulders of a president and a house and a senate are fare too small to carry a government. Remember that the government is already resting on the shoulders of the Prince of peace. His kingdom is already here, of the increase of His government there will be no end.
Second, the kingdom of God is above this world, and is not of this world. God plays by a different set of rules. His ways are often contrary to ours—and always higher than ours. Remember how little Jesus and the apostles ranted against and panicked over the secular, anti-religious, power-thirsty, and blood-thirsty Caesars of their day. Not once that I can recall. Can you? When face to face with Pilate the governor, who had the power to crucify or set him free, Jesus said, “You would have no power unless it had been given to you from above.” About Herod, the most powerful leader in the land, Jesus called him a fox. This was not a term of endearment or flattery. Rather, it seemed more like a flippant dismissal, even as he was on his way to the cross.
And to us, Jesus never says stand up for your rights. Instead, and into a hostile, anti-religious political climate, he says things like “Blessed are the persecuted” and “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”
And to God what belongs to God.
Third, and to Jesus’ point that all power held by all earthly rulers is given by God alone—The American public will vote this week as it does because God, in the mystery of His providence, has already cast the deciding vote.
Fourth, the heart of every king and ruler (and house member and senator) is in the hands of God.
Fifth, believing people need to be praying for, honoring, speaking well of, and submitting to their leaders. Romans 13, written to Christians living under the heavy, anti-religious, violent fist of the Roman Caesar, says that submitting to government (except when it violates conscience to do so) is a moral imperative. And so is restraining the tongue when we are tempted to curse or speak ill of this leader or that leader.
Sixth, let’s remember that, with very few if any exceptions, Christianity has advanced and flourished most when the state was against Christianity, and it has languished and suffered most when the state was for Christianity.
So then, if you are devastated or irate over the outcome of this week’s election, relax. We only need, and already have, one Messiah, and He did not lose this election.
And if you are ecstatic about an election outcome, relax. Take inventory. We only need, and already have, one Messiah, and He did not win this election.
This post is an adapted excerpt from Scott’s book, Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation, and Fear. By permission from Tyndale House.
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