*Editorial Note: The 2024 Presidential Election officially began on January 15th with the Iowa Caucus, and will continue to dominate the news cycle for much of this year. While Missio Alliance doesn’t ascribe to a particular political party nor official position on hot-button electoral issues, we also deliberately choose to engage with culture as compassionate, committed followers of the Way of Jesus.
The word politics carries in its root that of polis, meaning ‘city’ in Greek. To engage in politics means to seek the welfare of the inhabitants of the city in which you dwell. The prophet Jeremiah exhorted the Israelites in exile under Babylonian rule towards this end, writing “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you in exile” (Jeremiah 29:7).
In this spirit, we have invited Jason Barnhart, Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ohio (a swing state no less!), to wrestle with core issues that affect our political reality as Kingdom citizens several times this year. Other voices will follow throughout this election year as well giving their perspective as Christ-followers.
Above all, we are praying for your engaged, discerning, Spirit-centered voice to make a difference in your own city. ~CK
American Evangelicalism Has A Political Issue
There is no denying that American evangelicalism is in crisis. The data shows that a political nightmare has revealed fissures in the evangelical landscape. Vast swaths of the American expression of this religious tradition have been exposed as synonymous with white and Republican. A problem we may have hoped to overcome in 2020 is rearing its ugly head in American politics in 2024.
Much ink has been spilled discussing the white nature of American evangelicalism. Undoubtedly, people of color increasingly feel alienated by American evangelicalism, even if they hold evangelical commitments (e.g., authority of Scripture). I want to poke at the latter. American evangelicalism has a political issue, and not just in the way you’re thinking.
American Christianity has become so overtaken by expressive individualism, the modus operandi of the dominant culture, that it’s difficult to explore more resounding, systemic failures of movements like American evangelicalism. The compound of Reformed and Pietist forces that shape this movement has led to its distortion. On one hand, the Reformed side can lead to a hyper-Calvinism that ensconces belief in dogmatism. On the other side, Pietism so values heartfelt piety that it quickly is hijacked by the privatization of religion that marks the American psyche.
This unstable compound leaves American evangelical Christians limping. They are dogmatically certain, passionate believers lacking a politic. Now introduce the newest, charismatic wave of worship music that struggles to discern between experience and the movement of the Spirit, and you have a very toxic compound.
American Christianity has become so overtaken by expressive individualism, the modus operandi of the dominant culture, that it’s difficult to explore deeper, systemic failures of movements like American evangelicalism. (1/2) Click To Tweet
The compound of Reformed and Pietist forces that shapes this movement has led to its distortion, leaving American evangelical Christians limping. They are dogmatically certain, passionate believers lacking a politic. (2/2) Click To Tweet
This is a problem we’ve brought on ourselves. As Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon were reminding the church in the late 1980s in their seminal work Resident Aliens, “American ecclesiology [does not know how] to achieve justice other than through politics.”1 Through encouragement to involve themselves in politics to change society, the alternative nature of the church was supplanted by the church as a particular interest group of voting lobbyists.
This distorted a central truth of Christianity that the Christian faith demands ecclesiology. Salvation has always been one of being saved into a body, the church. In an era of spiritual but not religious, I fear that religious experience has become the sole source of authority. Protestantism glorified the role of individual conscience; now, conscience runs amok. American evangelicals have ecclesial commitments; it is just to political parties and not the church.
So, it came as no surprise in 2020 when white American evangelicals became violent for Donald Trump in their efforts to “save” the White House. Absent the church as a politic and political party as their sole politic; these evangelicals can turn to violence to defend their “church.” Church is a place they go, as individuals, to express their adoration of God and receive a word from God to order their private lives. Absent church as politic, many evangelicals, and I would include myself at times, have failed to recognize the difference between the God we meet in Jesus Christ and a mere higher version of ourselves expressed through our political commitments.
The liturgy of evangelical worship reinforces that we’re victims (of sin, shame, hurt). It is not that this is false; it’s simply an anemic and incomplete narrative. Rather than confession, whereby we recognize the many ways we are the victimizers of our world, we change sin to shame and remind the faithful that God sees them and is for them, no matter what.
The fundamental anxiety is the elephant in the room (no pun intended).2 Many evangelicals cannot answer why they are in a space defined as a church without mentioning how that space serves their individual needs. The absence of a politic fuels deep frustration in them, a frustration they cannot name. And, as we saw, they find that politic in a party. Such a political identification helps remedy their anxiety about their relevance in the world.
Many evangelicals cannot answer why they are in a space defined as church. The absence of a politic fuels deep frustration in them, a frustration they cannot name. And, as we saw, they find that politic in a party. (3/3) Click To Tweet
The church of Philippi3 faced similar difficulties. Two perils were potentially deadly to the early congregation — dissent from within and disdain from without. The Philippians were a people experiencing ostracism for not following the majority customs. Many abstained from pagan worship, which was seen as a threat to civic unity. But some in the church “set their minds on earthly things” (Philippians 3:17-21). They started to mix the world’s customs with the life of the church, which caused conflict in the life of this early community.
To address the first peril of dissension, Paul reminds them of their koinonia, their shared life, their communion with one another, a life born of the Spirit (Philippians 2:1-5). But this is only made possible when they recognize fully the second peril. While they are a koinonia, they are also an alternative politeuma, an alternative politic or society. They are a colony of heaven amid the Roman Empire. As followers of Jesus, they have a different homeland, allegiance, and source of protection and deliverance (Philippians 3:20).
Rather than Roman power or customs, Christ is their vindication. Beyond justification and sanctification, in Christ, these persecuted people will experience their glorification. They will be conformed entirely to the body of Christ in glory. The resurrection is personal (individuals), corporate (church), and cosmic (the entire cosmos). Their alternative politeuma points the world to that reality made present in Christ’s resurrection and yet to come for the rest of creation.
Peter4 speaks much like his contemporary Paul when he uses two critical words: genos and ethnos. The church is a chosen genos (people or race) and a holy ethnos (nation) (1 Peter 2:9). Our identity is shaped by the mediation of the gospel through the chosenness and holiness/otherness of our race and nation in Christ. The church, then and now, is a diasporic (scattered) and exilic (marginalized) people constituted by the faithfulness of Jesus and our loving obedience to him. Peter reminds his readers earlier in his letter that the church gathers and is pieced into a spiritual house where the Living Stone, Jesus, dwells (1 Peter 2:4-12).
For Paul, the church is an alternative politeuma (politic or society), a colony of heaven amid the Roman Empire. As followers of Jesus, they have a different homeland, allegiance, and source of protection and deliverance. (1/2) Click To Tweet
The resurrection is personal (individuals), corporate (church), and cosmic (the entire cosmos). The church's politeuma points to that reality made present in Christ’s resurrection and yet to come for the rest of creation. (2/2) Click To Tweet
The resolution to our political issue is complex, like the ills it seeks to address. I make no claims to have the silver bullet, but a place to start is by doing a deep and thorough inventory of the liturgies of our worship. Some challenging questions to consider include:
- Do our songs only speak of individual experiences?
- Do our corporate gatherings offer times of confession for the faithful to be reminded they are sinners continually saved by the righteous intervention of the Spirit?
- Do we remind ourselves that the church is God’s politic on earth? Our involvement in the politics of our society is secondary. Just as anger is a secondary emotion (often from fear or grief), we must ensure our political engagement flows from our political identification with the church. This local congregation calls on us to submit our lives to it.
We would be wise to listen to the prophetic call of Hauerwas and Willimon now 35 years later:
“The church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief. As a society of unbelief, Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression.”5
If we fail to submit to a faithful community of “resident aliens” that reminds us that we’re not the center of the universe, then we will repeat the narcissistic religious experiences that have come to mark our present age.
America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was asked if God was on the side of the Union during the Civil War. His response serves as wise guidance for American evangelicals: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”6 This is even more important as we look at the possibility of a repeat of the 2020 election in 2024.
Will the faithful recognize that Republicans and Democrats are worldly descriptors and submit to the politic of the Lamb?
I’m called to be hopeful. I believe we can do better. Indeed, we must!
Jason Barnhart is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Ashland Theological Seminary. Jason is the author of Word-Spirit Communal Revelationalism: The Brethren-Evangelical Theological Epistemology of J. Allen Miller (2022), co-editor of A Brethren Witness for the 21st Century (2014), and editor of A Brethren Way: Rediscovering our Distinct Posture and Witness (2016). He has authored several articles on the theological witness of the Ashland Brethren within the larger world of American evangelicalism. He holds a Doctor of Theology (2019) in Brethren historical theology from La Salle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jason resides in Ashland with his wife, Allison, two children, Miles and Clementine.
If we fail to submit to a faithful community of 'resident aliens' that reminds us that we’re not the center of the universe, then we will repeat the narcissistic religious experiences that have come to mark our present age. Click To Tweet
1 Hauwewas, Stanley and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition). Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014. 31.
2 Editorial Note: Pun fully noted and enjoyed! ~CK
3 See the Bible Project’s work on Philippians for more: https://bibleproject.com/guides/book-of-philippians/.
4 See the Bible Project’s work on 1 Peter for more: https://bibleproject.com/guides/book-of-1-peter/.
5 Hauwewas, Stanley and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition). Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014. 49.
6 Editorial Note: While this quotation is widely attributed to Abraham Lincoln, and there is not substantive evidence that Lincoln never actually said this, it is difficult to find the exact speech/moment in which he said this very thing. In a decent Google search, I was unable to locate the exact citation. ~CK