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Sunday, July 31, 2011

What then shall we do?

I have never had much stomach for those who criticize the position of another without being able to offer a positive alternative agenda. So I don't want to simply criticize those who make an alliance between faith and politics without offering a positive direction of my own. (This is referencing the previous post, if you're coming into the middle of the conversation.)

First let me say that I stand by what I said in my previous post. If believers try to protect a "Christian culture" by means of legislation and politics, we are on the same road that led to the bombings last week in Norway, the same road that led the vast majority of German Christian churches in the 1930's to display swastikas and swear allegiance to Hitler. In both cases, radically non-Christian action grew out of a desire to preserve and protect some form of Christian culture.

So I don't buy the idea that Christ-followers should work in the courts to preserve school prayer, or keep "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, or prevent businesses from being open on Sundays. Each of these is an example of the church trying to use politics to protect its own interests. As soon as the church tries to protect itself, it has lost its soul and ceased to follow Jesus in an authentic way.

Think about it. Do the words "under God" in the Pledge really help anyone to know Jesus? Does a watered down school prayer -- the only kind that will ever be enacted through legislation -- actually make people into disciples of Jesus Christ? For that matter, even if teachers were taught to pray in the name of Jesus, to pray an authentic, Christ-following prayer, would that convince their students to become Christ followers? Would closing the gas stations on Sundays lead to conversions or to authentic discipleship, or would it just allow a few more people to go to the lake? None of these legislated activities are going to make disciples of Jesus Christ. If Christians spend their time and energy trying to preserve these things, we have missed our most important callings and we are chasing after the wind, trying to recover a Christian culture that never really existed in this country. (Do the historical work and you'll find that America has never had a Christ-centered culture; there have indeed been times when we've had a tepid collective idea of God that was vaguely Christian, but it has been far more moralistic and never Jesus-focused.) Efforts to legislate a Christian culture, to protect "our" Christianity by political means, end up watering down and destroying authentic faith.

The task of the church is not to legislate morality or culture. Followers of Jesus have always been at their best when they have lived as a minority within a larger culture that allows them broad freedoms to express their religion. The first three hundred years of Christian history saw more cultural impact from everyday believers than any other period since. Yet for most of that time, followers of Jesus were largely tolerated and occasionally persecuted. For most of that time Christianity itself was officially an illegal movement within the Roman Empire.

The task of the church is to do what Jesus did. In John 20 Jesus tells his disciples, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Other places in the New Testament express this action in slightly different language. In Matthew, it's "Go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them ... and teaching them to observe all I have commanded you." In Acts 1, it's "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Jesus gives his followers a number of different sets of directions. All point in the same direction, however: we are to do what Jesus did.

So what does that mean? Jesus had ample opportunities to set himself up with political power. In John's gospel alone, we see Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the beginning of John 3 to offer the Sanhedrin's endorsement. Jesus sidesteps it. In John 6, after the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus recognizes that people are going to come and make him king, so he disappears. Repeatedly in the gospels, Jesus avoids political power, even when people try to hand it to him on a platter. The most striking example of Jesus' attitude toward political power is in John 19, when Jesus talks to Pilate about the nature of his kingship. Jesus tells Pilate forthrightly that his "kingdom is not of this world." Then he adds that if it was of this world, his followers would fight against the authorities. You cannot read the gospels with an open mind and come to the conclusion that Jesus was hungry for political power.

What, then, did Jesus do? He operated as an outsider to the cultural powers. When Herod wanted to see him, Jesus avoided the encounter. Whenever he got a critical mass of people following him, he disappeared and went somewhere else. He said things that alienated the Jewish leaders of his culture by supporting Roman taxation. Then he said things that alienated the Romans and their allies by proclaiming his own identity as the Messiah. No matter who he spoke to, Jesus spoke the truth. This is why the Romans, the Herodians, the Zealots, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees all agreed he had to die. He had alienated every one of these powerful political groups.

Jesus trained his followers not to rule over each other, but to act as servants to each other. His disciples tried time and time again to get him to build a political power base. Jesus consistently refused. Instead, he told them he was going to give his life on a Roman cross in Jerusalem, and that eventually he would rise from death. If Jesus' goal is to be a successful politician, he's the stupidest candidate that ever lived.

"As the Father sent me, so I send you." If the church is to live in imitation of Jesus -- and the entire New Testament points in this direction -- we cannot seek political power for ourselves. We cannot seek to protect ourselves by legislative means. This is hard for us to hear, because we have gotten so used to a church culture in which churches' first priority is to protect themselves. What takes up the vast majority of most church budgets? 60%, give or take, is usually staff payroll, and the staff is nearly always tasked with caring for the members of the church. Another 30% or so goes to mortgages and building maintenance for "our" church building. 90% of our budgets right off the top are totally self serving.

There are bright, beautiful exceptions to this statistic. There are, thank God, churches out there that exist for others, that live for the sake of those who don't yet know Jesus, that spend themselves, their people, and their resources, beyond their own needs, beyond their own walls. These are gorgeous examples of a new wineskin, a new way.

The church is to be giving itself away as Jesus gave himself away. We are to serve the true needs of the world in the name of Jesus, speaking the truth as we go. That "speaking the truth" alone will ensure that we never gain political power. We are to be a shining example of other-centered love. We are to be lights shining in a dark world. We are to be like salt, preserving health and life and flavor. Instead, we've become turned inward and focused on our own needs. Bill Easum said it well. "Jesus comes to you on his way to someone else."

Because of this, there is one kind of legislation I believe the church should be pursuing, within limited means. When those outside the church's sphere are helpless and victimized, the church should get directly involved giving time and resources and people to protect the defenseless. Then the church can also act decisively to enact policies that defend the helpless. (In doing this, we are imitating Jesus healing the Canaanite woman's child, or raising the widow's son at Nain, or protecting the woman caught in adultery against her accusers.) So, for example, if Christ-followers oppose abortion in order to protect the voiceless unborn, I'm all for it. However, if we try to enact a pro-life platform because we think it will unite our base politically, that's a different motivation and has no place in the thinking of a Jesus-follower. Christians act biblically when we lobby for AIDS orphans in Africa, or we get involved in advocacy for tribes in the remote reaches of the Amazon who are falling prey to greed, disease, and environmental destruction, but who cannot speak for themselves to protest their treatment.

We cannot simply make noise and demand legislative action for these causes; we must invest ourselves to have any credibility, let alone any wisdom, in this kind of a quest. This kind of advocacy is what William Wilberforce (of the movie, "Amazing Grace") spent his life doing. Note that this is a whole different kind of legislative action than working for our own protection, working to protect our own cultural heritage.

The follower of Jesus is called to cross cultural boundaries, not defend them. Remember -- "As the Father sent me, so I send you." Jesus crossed the ultimate cultural boundary in his incarnation, coming from the perfection of the godhead to be born into a human family. This is the move we see throughout scripture -- God reaches out over and over across the boundary to us, to humanity, to the world that he loves. How then can we sit back and try to defend our boundaries in order to preserve our own Christian heritage? If our defense is successful, we will find we have protected dust and ashes, and that will be our inheritance. Jesus will have moved on across the borders.

I have so appreciated the comments many of you have shared on this blog, via email, or on Facebook in response to these posts. Thank you, and I look forward to continuing the conversations!


  1. Allow me a slight modification, I think, to the point of this blog. I don't think the issue is so quite so black and white, (ie Christians shouldn't participate in politics). In reality it is the grey area of attitude that is important. Many politicians (leaders) were following God's plan and, I believe, in God's will. Such person include: Moses, David, Matthew, Paul, Wilberforce, and even NT Wright.

    The key thing that one must constantly guard against is attitude - ESPECIALLY when one gains political power.

    I sincerely hope this is a "friendly amendment" to your proposition....

    As always, thanks for the thought provoking blog. You, like NT Wright, always leave me thinking. Take care.

  2. Bruce,

    I would never say Christians shouldn't participate in politics. I believe many Christians are called to exactly that. What I totally disagree with is Christians participating in politics for the goal of protecting themselves and their own culture. I certainly think there's a time and place to make a reasoned defense when we are maligned (Paul in Acts 22-26, 1 Peter 3, and many of the early church leaders, e.g. Justin Martyr) but too many churches today spend all their time and energy focused on preserving themselves rather than caring for others.

    The mission of Jesus is one of losing our lives, not seeking to save ourselves.

    As always, thanks for your thoughts!


  3. Bruce,

    I misquoted 1 Peter -- I was thinking of 1 Peter 2:11-17, though 3:15 is in the same vein.


  4. Thank you for the clarification. I agree with you on both point: 1) that (some) Christians are called into politics (as well as every other vocation); and 2) that "Christians participating in politics for the goal of protecting themselves and their own culture" are doing so for the wrong motivation.