In my last post in this series, I compared the Leftist and Rightist models of government, and the shortcomings of both of them. In this post, I’ll lay out what I believe is an alternative way for Christians to interact with politics, and you might not like it.
The ideal political structure for Christians can be either right or left; it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it opposes Christians and fights back against them. The ideal soil for Christianity to thrive is one soaked with the blood of martyrs; so it has always been, and so it will always be. A society that murders its Christians is one that is terrified of them; a society run by Christians, unfortunately, leads to their spiritual stagnation. The chains of political power tend to corrode those who hold them, and history is full of cases where Christians are responsible, or held responsible, for wrongs committed when they were in power.
A fine (and obvious) example of how oppression is good for the church is China. Christianity is thriving in China, and despite what the whitewashed facade of the country’s public relations committee wants you to think, Christianity is often still brutally persecuted in China. This leads to its rapid growth, of course, which is why China has many millions of evangelical Christians.
At the deepest level, the human heart (particularly the male heart) craves adventure, risk, battle, and glory. Christianity offers this in places where it’s likely to get you thrown in jail or killed; in places like China, believing in Jesus doesn’t just bring salvation from Sin and Death, and a relationship with God. It also plunges you into an adventure. The simple act of sharing the Gospel to a friend or inviting them to church becomes a subversive act of war against the spiritual and physical forces arrayed against them. The Christian faith becomes exciting and dangerous.
But in a zombified, post-Christian society, contrived semantic barriers invisibly obstruct many of us from doing the exact same thing. Sharing the Gospel often feels more like a matter of awkwardness than one that inspires adventure. Christians in countries like American find themselves facing very different sorts of obstacles – but ones which are nonetheless real. And one of the biggest obstacles is… the church itself.
In a society where lots of people pay lip-service to the Church, the spotlight is always in Christians in high places of power, rather than those at the bottom, doing the vital (and often thankless) work that actually reflects the heart of the Gospel, and the lifestyle Jesus taught during his ministry.
I can’t say with absolute certainty that the Lord is impressed with the unpaid nursery volunteers who wrangle screaming toddlers so their parents can go to the service, or the parking attendant who stands directing cars in the soaking rain, or the church team who volunteers with Habitat for Humanity more than the superstar pastor with a huge platform. But I do think it is safe to assume that those low-key Christians living their faith, even in mundane ways, have a much greater opportunity to form loving relationships with those around them that will soak the Gospel into the lives of others.
Of course, there have been no shortage of fine Christian leaders, both past and present, who have done a fine job. I don’t believe that Christians should abdicate positions where they can make a difference, if that is indeed where they have been placed. And I also don’t believe that the Church should be overly preoccupied with PR and “looking good” to culture at large, which increasingly adopts values that are at odds with those of the Christian faith (though we certainly shouldn’t make things unnecessarily worse for ourselves, if it can be avoided.) I certainly don’t think we should actively encourage our society to become one in which Christians are violently persecuted – on the contrary, we should use our vote and place in American society to seek the health and well-being of our country.
But I would suggest this revolutionary idea: what if Christians willingly gave up the quest for power and influence?
What if we took Philippians 2.5-8 seriously – what if we gave up the keys to power, even if they were rightfully ours?
What if we stopped seeking to influence society from the top down?
What if we aspired to reflect 1 Thessalonians 4.11-12, to live quiet lives beyond reproach in the eyes of others?
What if political power isn’t the solution?
What if backing the Most Christian™ candidate wasn’t our priority?
What if we dismantled the evangelical platform – not ceasing to vote, but ceasing position ourselves as a political force?
The years I spent in Japan gave me a revitalized love of my country and cultural values that I had previously taken for granted. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how it all harmonizes with my faith, and I’m convinced that we need to be willing to let it go. We need look no further than the life of Jesus and those who followed immediately after, who never sought political power or even recognized political issues as the real problem.
This is all the more striking for the parallels between Jesus’ time and where Western Christians find ourselves today. Jesus was very much caught in the middle. On one side were the right wing conservatives epitomized by the Pharisees, who were all about tradition, rule-keeping, and order, and on the other side were the left-wing Zealots, who wanted revolution against the oppressive regime of Rome. (Admittedly, the analogy breaks down somewhat because both sides ultimately wanted autonomy from Rome, but went about it differently.) Jesus surrounded himself with people from all sides, and different places on the Sliding Scale Of Morality, because it was crucial that he show them that none of them were getting it right, and that they had missed the bigger picture. When his critics tried to pin Jesus down as for or against Rome, he always sidestepped the question in unexpected ways.
For Jesus, the real solution wasn’t found in enacting this political policy or that, because Jesus knew that the people in charge were always going to get it wrong sooner or later, and be corrupted by power. He wasn’t dependent on government, whether it was good or bad – he cared the most about what was happening with people on the ground – good people, bad people, rich people, poor people, sick people. Jesus saw the spiritual sickness common to everybody, and focused on that. His healing, feeding, and teaching constituting loving acts by themselves, but always pointing toward something that was much bigger and more universal: the Kingdom of Heaven, a new way of living that was inaugurated with his Resurrection.
All of this needs to be said in an election season where both sides are rife with dissatisfaction toward their party candidates. Instead of giving over to despair based on the false assumption that if we just got The Right Person™ in the Oval Office, we would be Saved! – a longing that will be fulfilled only when the Lord Himself sits upon the Throne – I’d encourage Christians to take a different perspective on the state of political affairs. Again, I’m not discouraging you from casting your vote and being engaged, but I do think we’d be better off looking at this situation as an opportunity instead of a disaster, and maybe learn to hold our tongues a little bit better.
Maybe we can get back to doing what we do best, what the Lord designed our church to do – to love others, build healthy communities and families, serve those in need, and be people who reflect the values of the Kingdom of Heaven first and foremost, so that we can make disciples and bring resurrection into the world around us. The great thing about this objective is that it doesn’t hinge on the right government programs (or lack thereof) because it starts with you the individual and with us the church.
So let’s re-examine our priorities and get back to the behavior and values that have defined the church at its best throughout the ages. Perhaps some time out of positions of power is just what the church needs to be revitalized.