For some context, you should know that I am a recovering political junkie/idolater. Many who’ve only known me the last few years wouldn’t have picked up on it. Because of my job at church and my own dive into theology, I really haven’t commented on it much, nor given myself over to it in-depth recently. I used to be obsessed as a kid, though.
My dad and I used to follow politics instead of sports and loved it–I still love talking politics with him. I remember the ’92 election and every Clinton scandal from Whitewater to Lewinsky and all the smaller ones everybody forgets (Filegate, Travelgate, Campaign Finance, pardons for money, etc). I remember the Contract with America–not from books. My dad used to print off articles from the WSJ, the Times, the Post, etc. and I’d read them in class when I was bored (and that was in Jr. High). I was downright wonkish. Heck, I even edited the opinion page for my high school paper.
For years the plan was law school, become a prosecutor, then jump into a politics and help gain the Nation back for Christ. Or something like that. And then, through a long, roundabout series of events, I got the call to pastoral ministry and theology around my freshman year of college and a bunch of that changed. Essentially, I went from thinking about the Nation to the Kingdom, and from political commentary to biblical studies, philosophy, theology, and so forth.
At that point, things moderated for me. I began to cool towards the overtly political, started reading the news less, and sort of when into a political detox mode. It was sort of necessary because—as a bit of hot-blooded young fella—things had gotten all tangled up in a fairly unbiblical, “God and country” sort of way. So the break was healthy.
Of course, I realized that at some point I probably went too far in the other direction. There’s a sort of danger that happens when you’re repenting of some error to see-saw over in the other direction. So, instead of being obsessed with politics and identifying the Church with the Republican or Democratic party, or America as the New Israel, you turn into the guy who loves Jesus-juking every political concern. There’s a sort of apolitical attitude some pious types get that forgets that much of the political instinct isn’t just power-plays and over-realized eschatology, but a real concern to love your neighbor by pursuing the common good of the cities, states, and nations God has placed us in. In essence, the confession that “Jesus is Lord” no matter what, becomes hard to distinguish from burn-it-to-the-ground nihilism with a Jesus-fish slapped on it.
Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out my theology of political engagement that takes into account our creation mandate, the corruption of the Fall, God’s redemption, the unique role of the Church in the World, and even my own place as a theology student and possible, future teacher in the Church. As simple and obvious as all that sounds, I haven’t nailed it down.
I know this because I feel myself getting sucked back into some of the same old patterns of thought and mind that were part of the unhealthy element of my former, political self.
To be honest, the 2016 election is so manic and anxiety-inducing. ISIS, Scalia’s death, the eroding middle class, racial tensions, religious liberty after Obergefell, the Donald, and everything else just seems to be bringing out the worst in everybody. The paranoia. The anger. The consternation and confusion that so many of these sheeple (i.e. my fellow citizens) are so obviously wrong about what matters!…Again, I don’t have this down.
What I have been doing, though, is trying to remind myself of a couple key doctrines as I continue to process my broader theology of political engagement and this election season in particular. I suppose they’re my list of truths that, as an average citizen with moderate levels of political efficacy, will help me stay engaged without becoming obsessed, or forget Jesus’ basic commands to love. Since I figure I’m not the only one who’s been getting sucked in this season, I offer some of them up to you as a brief encouragement as well.
Image of God, Fall, and Neighbor-Love.
The first is quite simply remembering that we’re created and fallen Image-bearers. I recently read that now, as a nation, we are more likely to date and marry someone of a different religion than of a different political party. This is partially because in a secular age, politics becomes our religion. Whatever the reason, though, the result is that it’s becoming more difficult to relate to people across the political aisle. We’ve become so emotionally and relationally distanced from our political opponents that we have trouble empathetically entering into their intellectual space and understanding their points of view.
This sort of dynamic makes it that much easier to treat them as more than simply political opponents, but ideological threats—the “Other” (sorry for the trigger word). We demonize and thereby lose the ability to dialogue, tolerate, much less love people that disagree with on complex issues like economics, religious liberty, sexuality, and so forth.
Focusing on the doctrines of the Image of God and the Fall help me in at least two ways. First, whoever I’m talking to, no matter our disagreements, is a bearer of the Image of God and is to be treated with dignity, respect, and charity—certainly not with cursing (James 3:9). That doesn’t rule out argument, a sharp joke, or robust rebuke, but it does rule out the contempt that has come to characterize much of our online discourse. In other words, love your neighbor as yourself applies even to Trump supporters.
Second, the doctrine of the fall reminds me that disagreement really can be the result of a sinful refusal of one party to see the truth. And that party just might be me. The fall reminds me that I too have fallen short of the epistemological glory of God and just might stand in need of the correction of my interlocutors. It also sets a curb on my self-righteousness in general, even if I do end up convinced that I’m right on a subject.
Of course, that doesn’t rule out making judgments of character, wisdom, and so forth on the basis of someone’s political engagement. For instance, I’ll be blunt in saying, along with Matthew Lee Anderson, that supporting someone who retweets white Supremacists, won’t repudiate the KKK, breaks up marriages, grossly mocks women, minorities, the handicapped, etc., while there are any other options for an office with access to nuclear codes is a serious lapse in moral judgment. Especially if you call yourself a Christian pastor…But these considerations require that I make that judgment only in the broader context of regarding them as one of God’s Image-bearers, loved by God, and the object of God’s saving activity in Christ just as much as I am.
Penultimacy, Principalities, and Providence.
Paul urged his readers in the church in Corinth to engage in life in the world in something of a counter-intuitive way:
29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Co 7:29–31).
While there are a number of quirks we could get into here, what I see Paul doing is advocating something of a doctrine of “penultimacy.” I don’t see Paul arguing that we should totally cut ties with the world, act as if our marriage vows don’t matter, or that death doesn’t cause us pain. If that was the case, then he wouldn’t spend as much time as he does in his letters addressing all of these issues. He’s saying we should act in such a way that remembers these aren’t the final realities. It’s not so much a matter of whether or not to do these things, but how we should.
In other words, God has acted to redeem the world in Christ. There is a New Creation coming. Yes, what we do in the body and in the world matters for that New Creation life (1 Cor. 6:12-20), but this version of the world is not all there is. Death is not the final word. This marriage is not the final relationship. And—this is where it counts for us—this political order is not the final kingdom of God. These things matter, but they matter in a penultimate way—not in an ultimate way.
Another way of thinking about it is repenting from the heresy of Americanism, which tends to treat America as a new Israel, a chosen nation in some sort of redemptive covenant with God, upon whose shoulders the fate of the Church depends. I believe in providence, so yes, I believe God has plans for America, just as he has for all of human history. I also love my country. But to be blunt, while America is a world-historically significant country, it is not a redemptive-historically crucial one. The Church and God’s plans survived the fall of Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, the sidelining of the British Empire, and every other nation identified with God’s unique purposes for history. The Church will be here long after America is gone.
Obviously, I don’t want to see the Republic I love and have grown up in (or even the Party) go down—and I don’t think we’re there—but putting the drama of American politics into a broader, theo-dramatic perspective allows us to pump the breaks on our anxieties before they carry us away into thinking we’re involved in an obvious battle of darkness and light, with the sides clearly and neatly drawn into black hats and white hats. No, we forget that our ultimate battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers that span both parties and every political configuration and nation (Eph. 6).
It also reminds us that, no matter the details along the way, we do know where it all ends—exactly where God intends it. We forget too often that God’s eye is on the sparrow and he knows how many hairs are on your head—do we think he’s unaware of the primaries? I’m not saying this with a Pollyannaish view of political providence. Reading the court histories in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings is sobering stuff. All the same, God’s providence is a doctrine for sober times—for prophets living in the midst of sinful Israel as much as for Daniel in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Even on the far side of the worst disaster and death we can imagine, lie hope and resurrection.
Prayer: A Better Way
Again, none of this is meant as a sort of Jesus-Juke to create apathy to the real, political concern and involvement we are all called to in our various roles as neighbors and average citizens on up the line to elected and appointed officials. If this world and its politics did not matter, then Paul wouldn’t tell us to pray for all of our political leaders, whether kings or elected officials so that they might govern in a way that enables a peaceful and quiet life (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
Instead, it is meant as a reminder that part of what makes Christians holy is not simply that we do different things than our neighbors, but that we do the same things our neighbors do differently. We vote, we argue, we serve, we engage, but we do so in the broader perspective of the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension to the throne of the universe from whence he will return to judge the living and the dead. We do it to love our neighbors, not simply triumph over them.
That said, I suppose it is appropriate to close with Paul’s encouragement. Though much of our holiness is caught up in doing things differently, sometimes the different things we do are what enable us to do so. Prayer is one of them because prayer reorients us to all the truths I’ve been outlining.
Praying for our neighbors, our nation, our leaders, our activities puts them in their proper, spiritual perspective. Prayer acknowledges that these things are right objects of our concern—indeed, we are bringing them to God for his concerned action and discernment. Prayer also—since it is for all people—treats our neighbors, our political opponents, and our leaders as worthy of God’s attention and our respect, honoring them as Image-bearers alongside ourselves. Most of all, prayer acknowledges our dependence upon God in Christ for wisdom, for his mercy, and his good, sovereign will.
Soli Deo Gloria