Moral Majority or Loving Minority? I’ll Take the Latter, Please.
Some say that Christians should support one political party and should never support the other. Interestingly, there are people from the left as well as from the right who talk this way. I don’t think it’s that simple. Let’s talk about a few reasons why, shall we?
Christians have liberty in things that are non-essential, including politics. The political left and the political right both have good things to say, and both have their problems as well. It can be damaging and shortsighted 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 common faith that transcends opposing political loyalties (the disciples Simon and Matthew), 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 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 said that not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. He warned 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 emphasized the importance of evangelism and conversion and said that unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God (Matthew 5:18; John 3:5; Revelation 22:18-19). Those 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 upended the long-held traditions of his time, establishing a new vision for the world for anyone who would receive it. In this, Jesus was quite subversive with respect to the cultural norms of his time. He said 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 (Matthew 5-7; Ephesians 2:11-22; Luke 4:18-21). 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 than 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 their 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 they found it. Consider these words from CS Lewis:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world are just the ones that thought the most of the next. . . . In 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 in effective in this. (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity)
Let’s consider for a moment what history does in fact tell us.
Political Majority vs. Life-Giving Minority
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 finally makes 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” (John 6:15).
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 (Psalm 20:7, 146:3)? Because Christianity always flourishes most as a life-giving minority, not as a powerful majority. It is through subversive, counter-cultural acts of love, justice, and service to 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 were “having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:46) because of the refreshing way in which they loved all of 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, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”
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 Europe. 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.
The Kingdom of Jesus does not advance through spin, political maneuvering, the manipulation of power, or “taking a stand” for Christian values (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 Do Kingdom Politics Work?
By the third century AD, 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. By law, women could only have one husband. Men 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, then the state would withdraw support and she would 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 what Roman culture said, each Christian man would either be single or a “one-woman man,” the husband of one wife. The conservative virtue of monogamous sexuality within marriage 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 life was 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’ 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 off 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), 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—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 conservative with their bodies, the early Christians 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 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, among other things, to champion the cause of the weak, heal the sick, feed the hungry, and show hospitality to people on the margins. With his statement, Erik was calling the church to a renewed vision of being a counter-cultural 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.” (Matthew 6:33)
* This is the third of a total of three posts on the subject of politics, and, with permission from Tyndale House, is an excerpt from Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides. You can also read the first and second posts that go with it.