As we turn into the new year, Christians in the United States are facing a crisis that jeopardizes our capacity to be faithful witnesses.
Public life churns deeper into antagonistic battles, and Christians are struggling to cast a vision for hope beyond those battles, as recent reactions to the presidential impeachment proceedings reveal.
Some Christian leaders have recently called this crisis a “hyper-politicization” of the American church (see Dalrymple’s article in CT). It is evident that something is broken with politics and the church*, but calling it “hyper” might be a misdiagnosis.
The wrong diagnosis leaves us with strong critiques of the existing toxic elements, but it fails to forge an imagination for a meaningful alternative to the partisan political system.
The Misdiagnosis and Unintended Effects
The use of the prefix “hyper” would imply that there is an over-functioning political element in Christian life. We have too much politics at work in our body.
The charge of hyper-politicization is born from the impulse to create distance between the moral/ethical witness of the church and the antagonistic discourse of the partisan political system in the United States. The impulse is to back away from the idolatrous embrace of partisan ideology as a primary mode of Christian social engagement or prophetic critique.
Presumably, the remedy for hyper-politics is to be less political so that we cleanse our prophetic critique of partisan agenda and focus on the Kingdom. With this remedy, we are left with the sense that political engagement is important, but not as important as the Gospel. It’s clear that we should not be partisan, but it is unclear what else, if anything, the Gospel has to say about how we should order our lives and relate to others in ways distinct from the ideals of the late modern democratic project.
At times, the effort to back away from partisanship collapses all political engagement into the national partisan system. The only option for political engagement is partisan politics. Christian hope for political renewal is limited to the possibility of a better functioning national system, or for a more palatable president.
The effect of this misdiagnosis is that politics becomes secondary to the Gospel. If we miss how the good news that God is saving the world by making Jesus is king is inherently political**, and how that good news shapes a particular social reality, then Christians can be no more than a chaplain that serves the state’s agenda.
We lose space for both prophetic witness and counter-formation. The best we can do is lob moral abstractions into the public square when our tolerance level is violated. And even that effort is becoming increasingly incoherent, as revealed in the recent debate over whether Christians should call for the president’s impeachment. We’ve lost common ground, even among Christians, for public discourse about the ethics of a leader to be meaningful.
Not Hyper, but Hypo
What if we framed the crisis we’re facing as a hypo-politicization of the American church? Christian political witness is not over-, but under-functioning and under-developed. Our crisis is an under-funded imagination for faithfully living out the politics of King Jesus. Christian political witness is not over-, but under-functioning and under-developed. Our crisis is an under-funded imagination for faithfully living out the politics of King Jesus. Click To Tweet
Thus, the over-identification with partisan ideology is not the disease itself but a symptom of a deeper lack of a meaningful alternative. For too long Christians in the United States have been pumping in a partisan supplement to make up for our political lack.
This means that the remedy, rather than simply distancing our witness from partisan ideology and then critiquing it, is developing the capacity for Christian communities to embody a particular, thick, and local political witness.
The remedy is raising our consciousness for how God is renewing the world through our life together under the lordship of Jesus—increasing our effort to understand how our allegiance to King Jesus reshapes how we relate to power, relativizes our tribal commitments, and redefines the ends to which we aim our lives.
Ethics Cannot Be Separated From Politics
In part, this begins by challenging the presumption that ethics can be separated from politics. This presumption is often implicit in the laudable attempt to disentangle Christian prophetic witness from partisan ideology. The idea is that our witness will be more effective as long as we can demonstrate our ethical critique (usually of a party leader like the president) is not tainted by political bias.
But ethics are not free-floating ideals easily accessible to all “reasonable” people. Ethics always live within an entire way of life ordered under a vision for the good. Think about how the Ten Commandments are inextricable from the entire life of Israel and worship of God.
The point is that without a meaningful alternative vision to partisan politics, our prophetic witness against unjust policy or ungodly leaders will continue to register within the existing antagonisms, no matter our insistence otherwise.
Christians can challenge this presumption by working to re-ground our ethics in the reign of the crucified Lamb. We do this by becoming a particular community of people who confess that this suffering Messiah is Lord over all creation, who are committed to being his disciples by walking in the way of his cross.
Thus, the test for the adequacy of our ethics and the grounding for our prophetic witness (either toward fellow Christians or the state) is whether or not it is faithful to the way of God’s love revealed in King Jesus and consistent with the cross-shaped social and power dynamics that characterize his reign. The interests of a party or president or pragmatism cannot be our metrics, but that doesn’t make our ethics any less political.
The Remedy is Repentance
Becoming more political as Christians looks like integrating Jesus’ cross-shaped love into all aspects of our personal and social existence. Becoming more political is the effort to align both our life together and public witness with the self-emptying, non-grasping power of King Jesus. Becoming more political means our responsibility to others, especially to the marginalized and hurting, is defined not by tribal loyalties or self-preservation, but by how Jesus has made us members of one another. Becoming more political as Christians looks like integrating Jesus’ cross-shaped love into all aspects of our personal and social existence. Click To Tweet
The name for this kind of reorientation is repentance. There is no participation in the politics of King Jesus apart from repentance, both personal and communal. This goes much deeper than supporting the right policies. It describes the life of a community increasingly transformed by and anchored in the hope of God’s reconciliation of all things in Christ.
Repentance is fundamentally a political activity because it involves the conversion of our misplaced loyalties and allegiances. Far from a description of how individuals mitigate guilt, repentance means uncovering where our lives are invested in false gods, sinful systems, and disordered loves. This reckoning gives way to new and inexplicably social habits and practices (see Luke 3:1-20).
From repentance springs forth the prophetic witness of the church. Situating repentance as the necessary precondition for witness is the only way to restore coherence to our ethics and forge a meaningful alternative amidst the crisis.
* By “church” here I mean to refer narrowly to white evangelicals as a socio-political group. In so doing I simply want to recognize that the political challenges facing other groups, like historically black denominations, are different and thus require a more nuanced analysis than this article provides.
** See the work of Scot McKnight, King Jesus Gospel, and Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone.