We Have A New President — A Christian Response
Perhaps you’re thrilled about the country’s future under our new President, Joe Biden. Perhaps you’re dreading it and feel we have come to the end of the world. Most likely, you’re feeling somewhere in the middle, but whoever you are, there are political leaders with whom you disagree strongly.
Maybe it’s our new President, or maybe it’s his predecessor. Maybe it’s your governor, your state senator, or your mayor. But whoever it is, you’re faced as a Christian with the tension of respecting and supporting persons in authority whom you find difficult to respect and support.
If you scroll through your social media for more than two minutes, you’re sure to spot some sort of rant (whether shaming or euphoric) about a political leader or party. Social media has become the go-to place to mock and insult those authority figures we disagree with, and also to fawn over those whom we think provide the best answer to the world’s woes.
While we can (and should) feel strongly about different political and social issues, as Christians, we’re called also to respond to any and all authority with respect. Rather than bucking the system, sticking it to the man (or woman, as the case may be), or making personal insults and caricatures, Christians are taught in the Bible to respond to authority with honor. This starts with honoring God, who holds authority over the whole universe and the hearts of kings and rulers — all of them — in his hands.
One of the chief ways we honor God is in the way we respond to those He places in authority over us. Whether we agree or disagree with our authorities, showing honor and respect is presented in the Bible as a non-negotiable. In showing honor and respect, we also honor and respect God, who, in His own wisdom and for His own purposes, ordains who will lead and who will follow.
The Bible and Politics
The Bible also says Christians should honor, respect, pray for and obey authorities in positions of government. This can be challenging for all of us, especially during a heated political season like the one we have just come through. And yet, because politics are so heated, the season we are in presents Christians with a unique opportunity to live counter-culturally to the typical partisan spin and vitriol.
Biblically, Christians have a civic duty to honor their national, state and local officials. As long we aren’t being coerced to sin against God, following Jesus includes submitting to and praying for all of our public authorities — including and especially the ones we don’t like. When this happens, the citizens of God’s kingdom can stand out as the most refreshing citizens of earthly kingdoms, no matter who is in charge. This was true in biblical times, and it can be true now.
New Testament Christians were routinely marginalized, persecuted and even put to death by the Roman state. Even in this climate, honoring, respecting, cooperating with and praying for Roman officials was part of being a disciple. The Apostle Peter, who would later be executed by Rome for his Christian faith, said that in all circumstances, Christians must honor the king (1 Peter 2:17). The Apostle Paul, who would also be martyred by decree of the Roman Emperor Nero, said every Christian must submit to and pray for governing authorities (Romans 13:1).
In today’s political climate, it is sometimes hard to find Christians who embrace this line of thinking. Instead, many either fear speaking honorably about their leaders because of the backlash they may receive, or have been drawn into partisan spin and rhetoric themselves. As this happens, well-intended but misguided Christians become more like the world than Jesus.
Here are a few thoughts about how we can retreat from the spin and rhetoric, and instead return to more of a New Testament approach:
1. Show Respect for Authorities with Whom You Disagree
Examples fill the Scriptures. In spite of being put in prison for crimes he didn’t commit, Joseph treated Pharaoh and the Egyptian guards with honor. Daniel and his three friends spoke respectfully to Babylon’s evil King Nebuchadnezzar. David blessed and prayed for King Saul, even though Saul wanted to eliminate David. When David had the opportunity to defeat Saul with his sword and “cancel” him, he resisted the temptation. Instead, he entrusted himself, and all the ways that king Saul desired to harm him, to God who judges justly.
David even resisted speaking negatively about Saul. Why? Because God, for reasons only God knew, wanted Saul to be king for a time. Perhaps it was to discipline Israel for putting their hope in government leaders and power instead of God. Perhaps it was to stir in Israel a longing for better king like David, who, except for a short and tragic season of falling into terrible sin, assumed the posture and made the sacrifices of a servant-leader. Perhaps it was to prepare the whole world, through a frustrated longing of one imperfect leader after another, for the Perfect King who came first in weakness, but who will come again in power and glory and will “rule the world with truth and grace, and make the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love.” Perhaps it was for all three reasons reasons. But regardless of the reasons, out of respect for God, David gave respect to Saul.
These are some helpful models for us as we consider how to engage political discussions, and as we think about how to relate to authorities whose policies and demeanors get under our skin.
2. Engage Politics in a Grown-Up, Loving Way
Amid a heated political campaign in 1774, John Wesley wrote the following in his Journal:
I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them:
1. To vote…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.
In this same spirit, maybe it’s time for some Christians to dial down their social media outrage and instead use social media to build some bridges. Maybe it’s time for Christians to start inviting those on “the other side” to tell us their stories, that we may learn to empathize by walking in their shoes. Truth be told, most people vote Democrat because of certain types of pain that they either feel or fear. Likewise, most people who vote Republican do the same.
More curiosity and empathy, with less condemnation and power-grabbing, would be a refreshing thing. Especially from Christians. Can we get back to that? I’m struck by the following account of Christians in the early church, who lived their lives under a government that actively oppressed Christian people and Christian virtue:
“Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world.… [That it] revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”
– Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, p. 161.
Unless our real goal is to rally an echo chamber, stir the rage and rancor of an already angry ideological tribe, expressing only our outrage on social media is a bit of a dead end street. I say “only” because it is appropriate to use our voices on social media and elsewhere to advocate for social and systemic change, especially when our most vulnerable neighbors (black and brown, urban and rust belt poor, abuse victims, unborn children, etc.) are lacking proper advocacy and defense from people in power, but especially from Christ’s Church. However, if we use social media only to speak in what we deep a “prophetic” voice without any “priestly” kindness and grace to accompany it, or any “kingly” demonstration of willingness to pay a personal price for our message (Can I be candid? Woke people whose wokeness has personally cost them nothing are more a hinderance to justice than they are a help to it. The same is true of pro-life advocates whose advocacy has been limited only to life inside the womb.), we will likely, in the end, become more like fruitless clanging cymbals than those who win our neighbor’s hearts and minds through the power of persuasion and love.
It’s tempting to stay behind our keyboards when it comes to causes we believe in. But it would be far more valuable to donate our time, financial contributions or professional skill-sets to a nonprofit pro-bono once we find where we can be a resource. Or we can pursue relationship with some people whose experience of the world, and whose views on politics, are different than our own. Most real persuasion and change happens face to face and side to side, and without censorship, and does not include hiding behind a keyboard or the use of a “block” button.
In short, it’s time we considered Paul’s encouragement in the “love chapter” (1 Corinthians 13) to give up childish ways and become real, grown-up women and men in the way we conduct ourselves. Let’s get out of our echo chambers so our conversations and impact can become more real.
3. Remember How Jesus’ Kingdom Embraces “Them”
Jesus came to fulfill every part of Scripture. Not one scratch of the law will go unfulfilled by our Lord. How conservative of him. And yet, as Jesus demonstrates, the more “conservative” we are in our beliefs about Scripture (that every word is right, good, and true), the more “liberal” we will be in the ways we love. Jesus fulfilled the law by feeding the hungry, identifying with the poor, empowering women, reaching out cross-nationally and cross-racially (I thank him for this as a white, Western man) and welcoming and eating with sinners. How progressive of him.
And when you are tempted to go on a political rant, don’t ever forget this: Jesus brought Simon, an anti-taxation Zealot, and Matthew, a tax collector for the oppressive state of Rome, into his group of disciples. Of the four Gospel writers, Matthew alone points out this fact, signaling that loyalties to Jesus transcend all other loyalties, including political ones. Maybe in Matthew’s mind, partisan politics are a lot like money. You cannot love it and God at the same time. You can only serve one master.
Even Simon and Matthew, two people on polar opposite political extremes, found a way to live and love in community together. Why? Because instead of creating dividing walls, Jesus breaks down dividing walls and prays that His followers—from the political left and the political right—will live as one. In fact, he breaks down every dividing wall of hostility (see Ephesians 1-2), causing those who cannot love each other outside of Christ to become family in Christ (see Philemon). Jesus still welcomes into his circle of faith Jews who had been oppressed by Rome, as well as some Roman soldiers. He still welcomes Pharisees and prostitutes, gluttons and drunks, blasphemers and bullies, aggressors and victims, to do an about-face of repentance and follow him alongside one another — not as enemies who “put up” with each other, but as spiritual family who love one another as he has first loved us. In this, and this alone, we show the world that we are Jesus’s disciples. When we run from it, we hide the light of Christ under a bush, even doing damage to his good name.
Let’s do our best not to make Jesus guilty by association in the eyes of a watching world.
His good name is of much greater value than getting our way in the realm of politics and power. No, seriously. It is.
4. Ask Yourself the Most Important Question
In consideration of Matthew and Simon living in community together under Jesus, we should wrestle deeply with the following question:
For whom do I feel greater affection?
1. People who agree my politics but don’t share my faith? Or…
2. People who share my faith but don’t agree with my politics?
If it’s the former instead of the latter, we may be rendering unto Caesar what belongs to God. And that can’t be a good thing.
The way we answer this question will, in many ways, determine what kind of honor—or what kind of dishonor—we will give to those in authority over us, and also to Jesus himself.
Scott’s latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them
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