In the wake of President Obama's re-election, I would like to share a few thoughts--especially but not exclusively for my Christian friends.
Politics is something that stirs the emotions more than most subject matter. So I offer the following perspective based on what I trust both left-leaning and right-leaning Christians can agree upon.
First, can we agree that there is only one true King?
In Mark 12, a band of secular and religious leaders attempt to trick Jesus with a question. "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" Then, they handed him a denarius.
The inscription on the denarius said, "Tiberius King, Son of the God Augustus Maximus, High Priest." The Roman Emperor is claiming deity, and therefore absolute authority, over all people in the empire. Rome was a totalitarian regime in which defectors, those who would not bow to the ultimacy of the State, would be executed on a cross.
Jesus gives an unexpected answer. He holds up a denarius and says, "Whose image is on this coin?" "Caesar's," they reply. "Well then, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God."
In other words, the coin is imprinted with Caesar's image, so the coin belongs to him. BUT YOU...all of you...are imprinted with God's image, so you belong to God. The coin is Caesar's, so give the whole coin up to him. You are God's, so give your whole selves up to God.
How brilliant. Not only does he blunt the trap they set for him, but he establishes the proper ordering of things when it comes to Kings and Kingdoms. On the one hand, the citizens of God's Kingdom must endeavor to be the very best and most exemplary citizens of earthly kingdoms (Romans 13:1-2, 1 Peter 2:13-17). Even bad, anti-Christian leaders like Caesar must feel the positive ripple effect of Christian love toward people and places. On the other hand, none but God is entitled to absolute, unfettered loyalty. God alone is King and his Kingdom is not of this world. When God's Kingdom and earthly kingdoms collide, render yourselves unto God...and only to God.
Second, can we agree that participation in partisan caricatures and absolutes is patently un-Christian?
If there ever was a partisan crowd in the Bible, it was the crowds of Mark 15--that famous chapter in which Pilate, so it appears, is entrusted with Jesus' fate. Here we find the crowds begging Pilate to release Barabbas, a political zealot, a murderer, and a purveyor of chaos. In his stead, they demand the hide of Jesus. Jesus, who has been doing everything that a true revolutionary should--feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the poor. "Crucify him!" says the partisan crowd. Barabbas, the man of violence, is embraced as a freedom fighter. Jesus, the man of peace, is caricatured and crucified as an enemy of the State.
This is what partisans do. Partisans exaggerate the best features of "their guy" and the worst features, real or contrived, of "the other guy." Also, partisans minimize and overlook the weaknesses of "their guy," while dismissing the best features of "the other guy." What you end up with is good people being demonized and not so savory people being baptized by the crowds.
One thing that has discouraged me most over the years is how easily my Christian brothers and sisters can get sucked in to partisan melodrama. I am even more discouraged at how easily my brothers and sisters will participate in the politics of spin and caricature--ready and willing to tell half-truths to promote their candidates, and tell more half-truths to demonize the opponent. Have we forgotten that a half-truth is the equivalent of a full lie? Bearing false testimony is, with all due respect, unbecoming of a follower of Jesus. It's one of The Ten, folks.
Here's a question. If our politics lead us to believe that on this side of the ring (our side), we have the Savior, and on that side of the ring (their side), we have the Anti-Christ, have we not begun to co-opt our faith with our politics? Have we not begun to render unto God what belongs to Caesar, and to Caesar what belongs to God?
John Wesley once wrote the following during a heated political season:
For people who will vote, I urge them to vote for those they judge most worthy, and to speak no evil against the person they voted against, and to take care that their spirits are not sharpened against people who voted on the other side.
Yes, John Wesley. Yes.
Here's something else to think about. If I feel more of a kindred solidarity with those who share my politics but not my faith than I feel with those who share my faith but not my politics, what does it say about me? It suggests that I have sold out to Rome. I have rendered to God what belongs to Caesar, and to Caesar what belongs to God.
We must recognize, friends, that the Bible does not endorse one particular platform over another. Some may argue that their party supports "Christian values" and the other party does not. Both the "Christian left" and the "Christian right" make this claim in every election cycle. But this begs the question, whose Christian values? Which Christian values are we talking about? Are we talking about justice and protection for the unborn? Or are we talking about justice and protection for the poor? Is it the right to hold private property? Or is it our obligation to care for foreigners and aliens in our midst? Is it promoting an environment in which every able bodied person has the opportunity and obligation to earn his/her own keep? Or is it promoting an environment in which just wages, equal pay for equal work, and basic human rights are guaranteed for all people everywhere? According to the Bible, these among others are "Christian" values derived not only from common sense, but from the sacred Scriptures themselves. It is indisputable that both parties...yes, both...will emphasize some of these biblical ideals, but not all of them, in their platforms. It is also indisputable that both parties...yes, both...fail to honor the full range of truth, justice, and freedom that the Scriptures call for in a Kingdom that is truly "from heaven."
In short: We dare not co-opt our left-leaning politics with our Christian faith, and we dare not co-opt our right-leaning politics with our Christian faith. Jesus has affirmations for both platforms, and he has sharp critiques for both. It is God who created government, therefore government in itself is a good thing and a necessary thing. Still, the Kingdom of God is not, and was never intended to be, of this world (John 18:36). In this world and for this world, yes. Of this world, no.
Third, can we agree that a truly "Christian" community will make room for those from the political left, those from the political center, and those from the political right?
Interestingly, the little "church" made up of Jesus' disciples included Simon, a zealot, and Matthew, a tax collector. You could not be any different politically than a zealot and a tax collector. Also, we find Jesus inviting Jews (social conservatives) and Greeks (social liberals) into his community of disciples. We also find him inviting, even urging them, to love each other for Jesus' sake. Because Jesus loves them all.
The point is this. Once you have a collective of folks who disagree with each other politically but share a unified first allegiance to Jesus as King, political loyalties lose their ultimacy. Then what follows? Worldly methods like caricature, spin, and partisan absolutism fade from their politics.
Fourth, can we agree that there is a more impactful Kingdom than the ones in which we are prone to anchor our hope?
By the 3rd century AD, in spite of a government that stood against religious freedom, the entire social fabric of Rome had been transformed...for the better...not because of government but because of Christians. Here are a few examples:
First, it was the Christians who led the way in insisting that women shared equal dignity with men. 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, after which time the State would remove its support from her and she would starve. It was the community of Jesus who took up the cause of women, giving them prominent places of honor in the church, taking care of widows as if they were family, 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.
Second, infanticide was prominent in early Rome. There was no ethic of life to speak of in Rome, except that certain life was expendable. A letter from a traveling businessman to his pregnant wife sheds light: "If it is a boy, keep it. If it is a girl, throw it out." It was the Christians who took up the cause of orphans, adopting and caring for children--"If you don't want your children, please give them to us. We will raise and take care of them."
Third, as in Hitler's Germany, the sick and the poor in Rome were regarded as "useless eaters," a drain on society. But among the Christians, the sick and the poor had special dignity, and were treated as such. This included the sick and the poor who were not Christians. Emperor Julian, perplexed by the insurmountable growth of the Christian movement during his totalitarian regime (Julian ran his own version of the Holocaust against Christians), wrote a letter in frustration to a friend of his. In the letter, he states that the secret to the success of the "Christian sect" is their generosity to all. They take better care of our poor, Julian said, than we do.
In summary, the Christians were taking up ALL of the just causes of both the political "right" and the political "left." Roman society took notice, and within 2-3 generations it changed the entire fabric of society. People ceased to look to Rome as the ultimate, end-all-be-all solution to society's problems. Instead, they looked to the followers of Jesus and their radical, every-day, self-donating love. In a short span of time, Christians found themselves "enjoying the favor of all the people" (Acts 2:47).
One friend of mine said it this way: "The politics of believers, which are politics based not on earthly kingdoms but on the Kingdom of God, are under the radar and are life-giving. The Kingdom of God, rather than being confined to a particular locale or partisan platform, is everywhere. The Kingdom of God is present wherever the people of Jesus are, loving God and loving their neighbors. This kind of politics, when it finds critical mass, in many ways will make government unnecessary."
This last sentence calls for careful explanation, so it is not misunderstood. What my friend suggests is that small government is the biblical ideal. But small government only becomes possible when the Church actively and sacrificially takes up the causes of Christ's Kingdom in the world--spending Herself in the name of Christ, "taking up Her cross," toward the end that justice, mercy, and faithfulness abound in the land. If one wishes to relieve Rome of many of her current commitments, the Church must once again see itself, not Caesar, as the first responder to the needs of our neighbors. Let the Church run point and the government be there for back up, versus the other way around. As in ancient Rome, so in America and across the globe.
The politics of Jesus consist of Jesus giving his life in the place of Barabbas. For Barabbas to live, Jesus has to die. A good man for an evil man. A lover for a hater. A man of peace for a perpetrator of violence.
Jesus died in Barabbas' place.
Jesus died in our place.
As the crowds panicked and grasped for power, Jesus sat peacefully, quietly, and non-defensively, awaiting his unjust sentence from the Roman State.
Panic and grasping for power is the way of the world.
Sitting peacefully, quietly, and non-defensively, no matter what the political outcome, is the way of Jesus...and of his followers who have their kingdoms rightly ordered. "Do not fear, little flock, for I am with you," says the King. Do not rejoice when you find yourselves in temporary positions of power and influence, Jesus said, "but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
Render to Caesar what is Caesar's. Render to God what is God's.
Fifth, when we think about politics, can we think about how Jesus uses power to change the world, and adjust our methods accordingly?
Put Barabbas to death and it ends his revolution.
Put Jesus to death and it launches his.
The key to changing the world is not first and foremost getting a Republican in power (it didn't work out so well last time), nor is it first and foremost keeping a Democrat in power (it hasn't worked out so well thus far). Again, government is important. God designed it. God often chooses to make good things happen through government, just as he does through business, the arts, healthcare, academics, the family, and other spheres of influence. When government is at its best, human society enjoys greater flourishing and peace. But government is not, and it was never meant to be, the answer to all the world's problems. That's way too much pressure to put on any human or human system. "Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness..."
The world changes and the Kingdom of God advances as the people of God "season" and penetrate their neighborhoods, communities, places of work, and cities with neighbor-love, with joy in the heart because Jesus has done the same for them. The world also changes as the people of Jesus cooperate with their non-Christian neighbors, colleagues, and friends in seeking to make the world a better place. Common grace, the notion that God brings good into the world through all types of people, including many non-believers--is one of the greatest gifts God gives to the Church. Whether Christian or not, as long as there are people working for the common good, we can (and should) lock arms with them.
In this, we become supporters, not subjects, of our government. This is how God designed it to be. This is the biblical ideal.
Sixth, can we take a step back and remember a few things?
The shoulders of a President are too small to carry a government. Remember that the government is already resting on the shoulders of the Prince of Peace. His Kingdom is already here. Of the increase of his government there will be no end (Isaiah 9:7).
The Kingdom of God is above this world, and is not of this world (John 18:36). He plays by a different set of rules. His ways are often contrary to ours--and always higher than ours.
Pilate (and, as the case may be, an American President) would have no authority had it not first been given to him by God. The American public voted as it did because God, in the mystery of his providence, had already cast the deciding vote (John 19:11).
The heart of every King and ruler is in the hands of God (Proverbs 21:1).
Insofar as conscience permits, as conscience is informed by biblical truth, believing people are to pray for, honor, speak well of, and submit to their leaders. This is not optional. If it was true in Rome, where religious freedom did not exist, it must be the case in places like ours where religious freedom does exist (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17).
Lastly, let's remember that with very few if any exceptions, Christianity has advanced and flourished most when the State was against Christianity, and it has languished and suffered most when the State was for Christianity.
Finally, I will close with this thought:
If you are devastated or irate over the outcome of the Presidential election, relax. Things will be OK. We only need, and already have, one Messiah. And he did not lose this election.
If you are elated by the election outcome, settle down a bit and take inventory. We only need, and already have, one Messiah. And he did not win this election.
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