Theology

God Wants the Church to Be More Political

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As I laid out in my article the other day, the fact that so many Christians a) feel forced to endorse or vote for either Trump or Clinton and b) see this act as a Christian duty is a direct result of failed political theology in the Church. Such an attitude simply conveys that we see voting itself is more important than striving for a political form of representation that actually reflects the values of what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God.” Such an attitude also reveals the underlying bias many Christians have toward the state as the real domain of Christian political action.

Christians err when we see the state as the 'real' domain of Christian political action. Click To Tweet

In contrast to the (potential) for idolizing voting and state-centered politics, Jean-Jacques von Allmen asserts that

The Christian cult is a basically political action: it reminds the state of the limited and provisional character of its power, and when the state claims for itself an absolute trust or obedience, the Christian cult protests against this pretension to claim to be a kingdom, a power and a glory which belong of right to God alone. This is why, in gathering together for Christian worship, [people] compromise themselves politically.

Worship: Its Theology and Practice

This is not to put undue trust in the church’s ability to actually embody God’s ideal in history. God’s “city” is not so much a space or place as it is a performance, and the first step of church’s role in this performance is not holiness but repentance — repentance from its complicity with Caesar’s violence, in particular.

Presidents Don’t Follow Jesus

There must always be a critical ambivalence toward placing any vote of trust in someone running for an office that has the authority (duty?) to impose a coercive political will on others. The Clintons, Barack Obama, George Bush (x2) and Ronald Reagan have each been directly or indirectly responsible for imperial military campaigns that have killed or absolutely devastated the lives of thousands, and in some cases, hundreds of thousands of people. This is what empires do. They dominate other people groups — politically, economically, militarily, and increasingly, even culturally.

This should not be news to us, and if it hasn’t disturbed us enough to the point of carefully distancing ourselves from praising or defending a particular party’s nominee, we have become blind and victim to Caesar’s censorship. It doesn’t matter that there are various “just war” scenarios or “lesser evil” efforts to minimize harm. Voting in this country unavoidably reinforces hegemony.

Voting in this country unavoidably reinforces hegemony. Click To Tweet

At the same time, it is obviously true that presidents and countries like the U.S. do good things. The Roman Empire did some good things. The official leaders and the armed forces of the United States do many good things, often at great cost to themselves. But they also occasionally do awful things. Sometimes on accident. Other times, very deliberately. Sometimes there is regret. Other times, there is not. But either way, God cannot be regarded as their “commander-in-chief” in all things.

This doesn’t have to make them unworthy of a vote, as long as we know not to hold the vote in such high esteem in the first place! And it does not mean that everyone who works for the government, runs for office, or serves in the military is “on the wrong team.” It simply means that they are likely undeserving of a serious, public, political endorsement by people whose allegiance is to the God of Jesus Christ.

Most of all, Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies. Presidents of the United States cannot love their enemies. There are moments when the president not only neglects the principles of democracy, but acts as the politically sovereign exception to those principles (Carl Schmitt). The president of the United States, however Christian in character, exercises authority in such a way that runs directly contrary to how Jesus incarnates God’s power in the world. We may decide that we should still vote for a presidential candidate, for various practical and even ethical reasons, but we do not endorse them. And after we vote, we get right back to the most urgent political work of seeking first the kingdom that Jesus announced, and in which we have our hope.

We may decide to vote for a presidential candidate, but as Christians we do not endorse them. Click To Tweet

Politics on Christian Terms

Somehow we have been convinced that responsible citizens must care deeply about which person, Trump or Clinton, is going to be the next president. We’ve moralized this question, and even made it sacred. We keep getting drawn into debates, elevating our identity as voting Americans to a place of ultimacy. But from a Christian point of view, no presidential candidate in the United States is legitimate enough. Jesus would not have run for president, and neither would his closest followers. Yet so many Christians long for a “godly leader.” What does this even mean?

Politics matters immensely. Public Christian support of the best candidate does not. In this sense, I agree with Slavoj Zizek’s argument that “The Hillary Clinton Consensus is Damaging Democracy.” And this would still be true if it were any other two candidates. It just so happens that for this election, each of the two candidates is unusually unpopular, and one of them is theatrical.

Politics matters immensely. Public Christian support of the best candidate does not. Click To Tweet

Some will say that a critique like this could only be made from a place of privilege. I am open to this criticism, particularly from women and people of color (and this is probably a conversation that we need to have!). But I am speaking first and foremost to white evangelicals here — those who, myself included, have not had to struggle very much to obtain their own civil liberties.

Still, it seems that most significant political change usually happens through social movements from below with people who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to influence candidates, not to merely pick the right ones. And the church can be a leader in this!

So we do not sit idly by. We do not disengage. Instead, we engage on different terms. Because one thing is clear: the Church’s presence and witness in politics is not going to advance by way of candidate endorsements or caring disproportionately about the propaganda circus that is presidential elections.

The Church's political witness will not advance by way of presidential elections. Click To Tweet

Some questions for us to consider:

  1. What are some examples of these different terms?
  2. What are the blind spots of this view? (One could be that, though this might be a viable political theology for some evangelical congregations in North America, it may not be for others — especially those in other contexts who are suffering from extremely adverse political and material circumstances like war, abject poverty, famine, epidemics, etc.)
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