As image bearers of the one true God, we have a mandate to be the people of God in every facet of our lives, whether at church, in the marketplace, on the job, on the street, or at home. When we refuse to engage the political discourse and activity by assuming that politics have no place in our discipleship, in our theology, in our witness, or in the church, we immediately cede to “politicians” the right to define what is political and what is theological. This results in a diminished witness in the world and an emaciated and weakened church. As Christians, our refusal to participate in politics to favor those who God favors (those who are poor, occupied, incarcerated, displaced, marginalized, and oppressed) is an abdication of our responsibility as God’s witnesses in the world, it’s a rejection of the incarnation, and it is evil. As Christians, our refusal to participate in politics to favor those who God favors...is an abdication of our responsibility as God's witnesses in the world, it's a rejection of the incarnation, and it is evil. Click To Tweet
If we were to consider politics a branch of ethics, and if it answers the question, “How can we preserve the peace, safety, human dignity, and prosperity of ourselves and our world?” then as believers made in the imago dei (“image of God”), we know what is required of us (Mic 6:8): an active engagement in politics to develop the moral principles that govern our behaviors and daily activity. This moves us toward a civitas dei (“citizen community of God”) vision found in Augustine—to the extent that believers are engaged in a political society promoting peace and creating cooperation, safety, security, and mutuality (Acts 2:42-47)—and toward the goal of a well-ordered unity that centers God’s vision of human flourishing.
Regardless of what politics might mean today, and regardless of how politics is practiced today, politics’ most basic concern is about the ordering of our relationships and daily activity. Politics inform the relationships we have with each other, the way we live together, how we get along, and the control we attempt to exert over the material world around us. Politics at its core is about people. The practice of Christianity is also about people, our relationships, our love, and our mutual submission, and Christianity believes that God also has something to say about who we are, how we live, the way we relate to one another, and our interaction with and within creation. Therefore, being political means caring about creation, one another, and the ways we structure and order our society. And when we disengage, we fall short of God’s intention for how the church is to operate in the world. Being political means caring about creation, one another, and the ways we structure and order our society. And when we disengage, we fall short of God's intention for how the church is to operate in the world. Click To Tweet
The Disservice of Avoidance
Maybe you were told to never discuss race, politics, or religion in polite conversation. Why? Where did this mandate originate? Why are we cautioned about speaking about these topics with each other? Maybe this rule, this guidance, originated from the result of many a family meal ruined. Maybe it was offered to ensure that the family reunions could happen without any fights or insults. Maybe this rule was instituted to ensure a healthy and happy workplace.
However we inherited the mandate, it is unhelpful, especially in the church. In our attempt to make peace at all costs, we have done ourselves a huge disservice. We are in one sense forfeiting our birthright as the people of God living as God’s image bearers within God’s good earth to hold those in power accountable. In his book, Good News for the Disinherited, Alonzo Johnson notes, “Liberation is not the product of human ideology, but of divine New Creation.” As Exodus declares, God is the first speaker who calls for liberation—the liberation of creation—and it is the role of God’s church to take up God’s heart, desire, and intentions for humanity and creation. As Paul notes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).
God is Political
We are called to be active and political because God is political. Now you may be struggling with that assertion because you might be trying to fit God within the political construct of your choosing, and if you identify as American, you might be wondering which side of the aisle (left or right) God is on. Let me put that to rest now—God is on God’s own side (Josh 5:13-15).
Surveying the harm that the first humans unleashed by taking what did not belong to them in the garden, God incarnated. The incarnation (God becoming human) is the highest form of human affirmation possible. However, some view the incarnation as an illegal act. (Stay with me.) God could have solved the problem of the rebellion in the garden in any way imaginable, but God chose to take human flesh and work out the problem with us. This was a political decision, because other gods were always “other than” instead of entering the human experience. God was making a political decision.
Apostle John puts it this way:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
Another way to understand John 1:1 is to say, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” The key is the tabernacling; it marries the Hebrew (to dwell, rest, or live in) with the Greek (a tent) into the idea that God pitches a tent among us and decides to live and dwell with us. This is something we long for, something we delight in even, the living presence of God among us, but it’s also dangerous because God may make demands of us. In a world which prioritizes depersonalized action, every believer in unity with the Holy Spirit is called to act and decide personally about the tools and technology of control that affect our daily lives; anything else is an affront to the incarnation. God invites us to live and be in the world as if we live within and under the reign and rule of God. This is what it means to be kingdom people. Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we enact this vision of being in the world:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.’
—Mt 6:9-10 Every believer in unity with the Holy Spirit is called to act and decide personally about the tools and technology of control that affect our daily lives; anything else is an affront to the incarnation. Click To Tweet
The incarnation of God into human history is, therefore, a political act. According to human law and imperial rules, God is not allowed to become human. And no first-century, law-observing Jew would have expected, let alone had a framework for, God becoming human. God was always other than, God was always higher than, God, in this understanding, was supposed to stay God. God was supposed to remain in the image that we humans created God to be: whether a mean, violent, unjust, judgmental, warlike God, or a meek, mild, uninterested, aloof God. In either description, God starts to look just like us. And when God starts to think like you, speak like you, and look like you, that’s indication that you have created an idol, a false god. God being born to an unwed teenager in Palestine in poverty, humility, and suffering that was unimaginable. Being born this way was a judgment of the powerful and elite. God’s birth in this way was an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. This was a complete rejection of the power, dominance, control, and influence of empire, and it was illegal.
Editor’s Note: In Part 2 of this article which will be published on Friday, Donnell will explain further about the nature of God’s political activity and how it gives us a model for our own Christian engagement instead of avoidance.