Thursday, October 29, 2009

Non-involvement: a spiritual-sounding cop-out?

Okay, let’s all get this off our chests, since it’s at the heart of this conversation. Whether you need to scream it; or heave a sigh; or close your eyes, whisper silently and cross yourself - just say: “I’m upset and embarrassed by how some American Christian leaders are acting, and I’m upset that our faith has been over politicized.” If you decide to throw in a few profanities to truly express your feelings, I'll leave that to your personal convictions. Let your emotions flow; let your anger dissipate. Feel better? I do. Okay, now let’s have a conversation. I have already expressed my main objections to the idea of a “Christian America,” but I need to fill out my thoughts on the opposite side of the spectrum: anti-political Christianity.

In reaction to the objectionable behavior of political activists who have represented Christianity in a distasteful way (or, in some cases, simply the objectionable caricatures created by the pop-culture comedians who influence our thinking more than we’d like to admit), it seems very popular to say that Christians have no business being in politics. Certainly the kingdom of God is not now a political kingdom, and our primary focus is on building the church. But the kingdom of God will be political one day: the world will be ruled by Christ in a way that will establish truly good laws, rather than the laws we must settle for today that take into account the sinful flaws and depravity of both the ruled and the rulers. Blanket statements like “politics are corrupt by nature” must always be given with a qualification, because there is One who will wield political power with perfect justice and integrity (and apparently have glorified human beings as his appointed officials - Matt. 19:27-29; 2 Tim. 2:12) Neither can we trust our great enlightenment aphorism “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power is not the thing that corrupts. Positions of power just give greater and more public opportunities to people who were already corrupt from birth. And again, there is one who will wield power without corruption one day. When Young writes in The Shack that authority is only something necessary because of sin, he misses out on the way proper authority and righteous rule are commended in Biblical theology. Politics is not the problem; government is not inherently wicked. Sin is the problem, and it screws with government and politics endlessly.

But in identifying the problem more accurately, we still haven’t answered whether politics can be meaningfully engaged in while we wait for the part of the kingdom that has not yet come. Some would say that Jesus’ model was one of non-engagement. An acquaintance of mine did an interesting post on this recently. I recommend the post (unless you consider yourself a fundamentalist - then reading his blog will make you very angry), but I disagree with his conclusion. I don’t think that this is an area where Jesus was modeling a practice for us. Jesus lived in a political situation where any Jewish messiah-like figure had a couple of basic choices: question Roman authority and get squashed by the greatest military force on the planet at that time, or avoid confrontation and political agitation and be allowed to accomplish the rest of your goals in life. (In Jesus’ case, he managed to infuriate the Jews by avoiding confrontation with the Romans, and get killed by the Romans anyway - but he did so after he had accomplished all that he wanted to prior to that, and in order that he could accomplish victory over death, an enemy who had ruled much longer than the Romans.) Jesus did not punch a ballot in November. And I’m pretty sure that, if he had, it would not have been included in the inspired text of the New Testament, because the message of the New Testament only deals with politics incidentally, when it affects salvation, the formation of the church, and the promise of Christ's second coming. The quotes from Philip Yancey that appear on Musings of an Evangelical Mind remind us that Christianity is not essentially about political influence - but the premise is that we can determine based on what the text does not tell us about what Jesus did not do what we ought to do, when we live in an entirely different societal structure. By the same logic, we could exhort people to not pursue higher education, buy homes or invest in stocks and bonds. And none of these things are essential to a good and godly life - but we have no reason to urge people to throw them aside as useless. Doing so would not be following the example of Christ in a New Testament sense, but just being culturally quirky.

I think that each generation and each culture must work out for themselves how the truths of salvation and membership in the people of God and the impact that these things have on our behaviors play out more specifically in our unique situations. We are called to accept the same gospel, imitate the same characteristics of Christ, and obey the same central moral commands of God as at all times in church history. But it will be fleshed out a little differently for us than for Jesus and the twelve, or for Paul and the early Greek churches. This is not to say by any means that we reject their authority, but that we live out the same theology in a different situation, and thus it will look different, whether we try to make it that way or not. And since we have no command to avoid politics altogether, our concern is to engage issues appropriately, as part of our mission, without making political action an idol.

I welcome your critiques on these ideas, especially since a couple of readers seem to be in this camp. And from here I can start filling out a positive framework of what I think should shape our views. But who wants to read posts so long that they make your fingers tired from scrolling down the screen? This is enough for today.


Anonymous said...

I read the entire post. Scouts honor.

matty o said...

let your emotions flow?

thanks emperor palpatine.

Stephen Proctor said...

It is inevitable that Christians will be involved in politics. At question, I believe, is whether each political issue has one single, indisputable Christian position, and if so, who makes that decision.

For me, the real frustration here comes from the fact that a bunch of Christians in the ’70s and ‘80s decided to take it upon themselves to decide what the ‘correct’ position on political issues was and claim that side as the Christian position. As a result, over the past couple of decades, being a Christian has become synonymous with being a republican to both Christians and non-Christians. I think it’s actually gotten to a point that Christians who are not republicans are a little uneasy about talking politics with other Christians for fear of being chastised.

I’m not a political science expert, but as near as I can tell, there are essentially three groups in the political realm: voters, activists/lobbyists and politicians. So let’s deconstruct those and see if we can get closer to an answer...

What role should Christians play in the process, how are Christians supposed to vote? The same as everyone else. Look at what is being voted on, the person or the piece of legislation, and vote for the one that you think is right. But unlike everyone else, ensure that regardless of which side you’re on, you have solid Biblical support for voting the way you vote. And conversely, accept the fact that other Christians will be on the other side because they may recognize another piece of scripture as more aptly applying to the situation. And know that neither of you is more or less of a Christian, know that you should no be enemies in the world because you are brothers in Christ and humble yourself while reminding yourself that His will be done, and that He will use all things for the good of those who love Him.

Should our faith influence our vote? If Christ is at the center of one’s life, than it is impossible for his vote not to be influenced by his faith. But that may manifest itself differently among two different people. Again, as long as each one uses solid theological backing for his decision, he is right.

What about as an activist/lobbyist? If you feel especially led about some particular issue, get behind it and work to gather support. Explain to other Christians who agree and disagree with you your Biblical reasoning for the position you’ve taken. Explain to non-Christians who agree with you and disagree with you why you’re on their side politically even if you make not agree with them in practice... especially if you take a more controversial position.

What about as politicians? As a democratic republic, more often than not, we individual citizens don’t vote, we elect people who vote on our behalf. With that in mind, I think Christian politicians should remain resolute in their convictions, whether traditional or not. I think it must be very hard to be a Christian politician because part of the game of politics is compromise. Christians can of course compromise in some areas, but a Christian politician needs to hold himself to a higher standard and stick to his guns where it matters so that he is not a liar, even if being honest means he may not be reelected. And I think a Christian politician needs to be prepared to answer why, Biblically, he takes a certain position on anything.

So, I guess I think Christians can be meaningfully engaged in the political realm, as long as we are able to Biblically defend our positions and accept that there is no cookie cutter Christian position for any issue.

faithbornfromdoubt said...

thanks a fat lot nate. you've managed, once again, to express a viewpoint with which I already agree wholly and against which I can bring no violent objections.

jerk... I want more controversy! Say something heretical so I can attack you!

Austin said...

Bravo! (I'm not progressive enough to just use lowercase in my comments, is that okay?)
Isn't it just possible that one's political party and certain political ideas (if not all) fall under the "opinions" category of Romans 14. I preached on that text (Rom. 14:1-15:7) last month and it is incredibly influential. I just keep finding ways that it applies to everyday life and practice.