We’re in a season where American Christians are thinking about politics. Well, maybe not. Maybe it’s truer to say we’re in a season where the politics of the current American polarizations have colonized Christian minds. Candidates and their flunkies are assuring us of the horrors that will come if their messiahhood is not affirmed by the electorate. As a result, we obsess: is the country – maybe the world – coming to an end?
Christianity is an intensely political phenomenon. Its politics has nothing to do with the politics of Democrats and Republicans (or Socialists or Libertarians), conservatives or liberals. That confuses us, because we haven’t been trained to think of politics in Christian terms, only American terms, so the polarities that we see in America have infiltrated the American church. If we’re political and Republican, we assume that the Republican platform (and candidates) represent the Christian faith. Likewise, if we’re political and Democratic, we assume that the Democratic platform (and candidates) hew most closely to the Christian faith. All the while we avoid thinking Christianly.
One of the books I’m currently reading is Michael Budde’s The Borders of Baptism. His overall thesis is that baptism is the initiatory rite into the Christian polis, and thus the sign that marks the borders for our politics. He quotes Joyce Salisbury:
“Christians were perceived by their pagan neighbors to be antisocial in the deepest meaning of the word. They were creating their own society within the Roman one, and their loyalties were to each other rather than to the family structures that formed the backbone of conservative Roman society. Their faith led them to renounce parents, children, and spouses, and Romans believed this actively undermined the fabric of society. In fact, it did.”
Can American Christians today dare to be considered antisocial? Can we even contemplate “undermining the fabric of society?”
When we think of these things, we stand aghast. Being antisocial is the last thing we would want to do. Undermining the fabric of society, that’s what those people in that other party are doing. We are the ones standing for the true promise of America, the true republic our founding fathers dreamed of and enshrined in the Constitution.
Perhaps we recoil at this subversive language because we hear it as preaching anarchy. While a few, when feeling the oppressive force of extreme archy (or, more commonly, merely finding that they aren’t allowed to do everything they want to do), think anarchy would be a good thing, most intuit the destructive and death-dealing forces that accompany it. We cannot fathom a Christianity that could be true to itself that would advance anarchy.
But when Christians like Budde and Salisbury talk this way, they’re not advocating anarchy. Like the early Christians, they aren’t saying, “Caesar is a menace, Roman culture is bankrupt, we prefer barbarism!” The first thing we intend to say is, “Jesus is Lord.” The necessary implication of the lordship of Jesus is the non-lordship of Caesar, whether we take Caesar in his ancient Roman guise or in contemporary political garb. The early Christians had the advantage over us that Roman society at large, to the degree they even knew about Jesus, knew him to be a messianic pretender, a crucified criminal. Now at least the non-Nietzscheans among us consider Jesus a great (and harmless) guy, ready for co-opting by our political movements.
Can American Christians remember Matthew 6:33 – “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness?” If we can remember that, can we recenter our lives so that we’re not filled with elation when our current chosen Caesar-wannabe is leading in the polls – or filled with despair when our Caesar is failing?
Two signs (there are more, but I want to keep this short) in our culture give me pause when I hope for a recovery of a Christian politics. Both have to do with our failure to relate to people as Jesus teaches.
First, the survival of any form of racism among Christians demonstrates our ignorance of the force of baptism. If baptism is only “my personal profession of faith in Christ,” or “my being marked as belong to Christ for eternity,” we will fail to develop a truly Christian politics. How can white churches and black churches stand apart as we do? How can we not care when our brothers and sisters are suffering and feeling excluded? To use a favored American analogy, how can we fail to see that we’re on the same team? And yet when we fail to even talk to each other or to build intimate bonds of fellowship, we are, in effect, sabotaging our own teammates.
Second, and looking outward where my first point looked inward, how can fear and caution be our primary motivation in relating to Muslims? A Christian who knows anything about the history of the effort to take the good news of Jesus to all nations, anything about geopolitics and international affairs, knows that the countries that are the current centers of Islam are not friendly to Christian missionary work. Here we are, called to make disciples of all nations, and American allies like Saudi Arabia won’t even allow Christians to bring personal Bibles into the country. We see the death-dealing chaos emanating from Syria, we see the floods of refugees, and our first thought is, “What if ISIS miscreants are hiding themselves among those fleeing the war? We need to be keep ourselves and our families safe. It is our Christian duty.” If we’re going to allow any of those people into our country, we want to make sure Christians are at the front of the line.
I get this. I want to stand in solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world. I want to see them and their families living in peace and safety.
But have we forgotten the doctrine of providence? Here’s Jesus, the very Jesus we say is Lord, commanding us to make disciples of all nations. There are some nations we can’t get into. Perhaps some of us sigh, thinking, “Oh well, I guess we can’t go to those places. Jesus’ command will have to wait until it’s safe for us to go.” Can it be that God heard our prayers of excuse and said, “Ok, if you can’t go to them, I’ll send them to you!” Can it be that God is the one who is leading millions of Muslims into lands where Christians live, specifically so they can see and hear the good news of Jesus? Yet because our politics are American before they’re Christian, we have trouble imagining such a thing.
As long as the fabric of society is oriented around something other than Jesus, my calling, my mission, is to join the first followers of Jesus in their politics. Their politics was not violent, coercive, or bombastically defiant. They quietly went about defining their life together in terms of the Lordship of Jesus, blissfully (yet carefully), ignoring the demands of Caesar.