Three Ways to Pastor a Politically-Polarized People

Another election season is upon us…this time during the tenure of Donald J. Trump.

For some this four-year roller coaster has become a dip into collective absurdity where social media feeds once filled with pictures of our kids and pets turn into nonstop political ads and debates about candidates. For others, an election season is the culmination of the frantic non-stop political wrangling by which they find their core identity. In reality, political talk, arguments, critiques and divides, wars, wins, and losses never really go away.

While some people choose to splash around in the ocean and allow the waves of political clamoring to wash over them every day, others prefer to remain on the shore, under an umbrella, dipping their feet in the political saltwater sparingly every four years. The truth is we live in a political world and we have ever since the beginning of human civilization when humanity chose to live in organized communities. Polis requires politics.

Modern Americans live in a polarized political world, and I suppose it always has been this way, but the heightened divide and rancor between people these days seems worse than it has ever been and likely has at least some correlation to the current occupant in the White House. Of course, American politics include more than merely the tip of the executive spear, but whomever occupies the office of the President of the United States serves as a lightning rod of debate and the splintering of differences, perhaps today more than ever.

President Trump’s Polarizing Pragmatism

I was born under the reign of Richard Nixon. I faintly remember the critique of the Jimmy Carter administration, vividly remember Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and reached voting age by the time of the 1992 presidential election. I’ve lived as an adult under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Their administrations each brought division and contention, but the current administration has generated an altogether different dynamic.

Trump’s ascendancy has intensified the political divide and antagonism to an even higher level particularly among followers of Jesus. In some segments of the American church, Christians applaud Trump for being “the most pro-life-friendly president in modern history.” Other Christians question Trump’s character and competency. Some Christian appreciate his combative, tell-it-like-it-is style. Other Christians despise his rhetoric, his policies, and his tweets. We are witnessing a stark polarizing divide in the church between #Trump2020 and #NeverTrump.

Trump’s mode of political operation is driven not so much by political ideology or some vision of religiously-informed morality. The politics of Trump are based on what works, from his vantage point. Trump is first and foremost a pragmatist who just wants to “get the job done,” which is clear from his political speeches to his tweets.

He has capitalized on getting things done by standing up and fighting all those who disagree with him. Trump’s tone pleases some sincere followers of Jesus and it infuriates others. Where Christians can agree is that his approach to politics does the job of enlivening and motivating his political base. But it equally works in deepening the divide and intensifying the rage.

So how do Christian leaders pastor a politically-divided and politically-hostile people? I’d like to humbly submit three things we can do:

1. Develop a Jesus-centered political imagination

As we pastor people during a contentious election season, it’s more helpful to try to renew people’s political imaginations in a way that puts Jesus first and foremost than to try to change people’s opinions. The politics of Jesus, that is, Jesus’ vision for how human beings should organize themselves in societies, can be found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

Jesus serves as a new Moses who goes up on a mountain to retell and give again the law, not only for God’s people but for the world. The sermon Jesus gave that day has implications both for our personal relationships and for society. Renewing people’s political imagination according to the politics of Jesus requires grounding people’s faith in God’s saving work through Jesus not only for individuals but for the sake of the world. Renewing people’s political imagination according to the politics of Jesus requires grounding people’s faith in God’s saving work for the sake of the world. Click To Tweet

Developing a Jesus-saturated political imagination is not a strategy to elect a certain person to some political office. This kind of political imagination is necessary for Christians so we can envision how Jesus himself is at work on the earth to establish his political vision through his body, the church. Modern American politics bundles issues together under the banner of one of two select political ideologies. Jesus’ politics transcends these two. A political imagination filled with Jesus provides a way to imagine politics where Jesus sets both the agenda and the tone.

2. Model respect and civility as a prophetic people

Jesus functioned as a prophet to the religious aristocracy and to the ruling elite of his day. As we walk in the footsteps of Jesus we discover our identity as a prophetic people.

We are prophets of hope to the marginalized and the downtrodden.

We are the prophets of life on behalf of the most vulnerable in our world.

We are prophets of judgment to the oppressors and those in power.

As a prophetic people, we have the responsibility to speak the truth to power, but in the way of Jesus we can do so without giving in to rage, which is the spirit of our age.

In his recent Missio article, A.J. Sherrill advises that while we are divided in our political positions, we can find unity along a vertical axis based on our political posture in the world, a posture of grace, curiosity, and humility.

From this posture, we open ourselves in the church to brothers and sisters who hold different opinions, people who stand on the other side of our entrenched political positions. This kind of openness requires both respect and civility as we see others through the eyes of Jesus, as dearly beloved brothers or sisters in Christ.

We see them in their humanity with their convictions, and we do not judge or despise them based on how they vote. We speak to them from a place of love and respect, and we refuse to demean, insult, or vilify them. Those of us who lead congregations can model this in how we speak, teach, and tweet during this election season.

3. Cultivate a love for the kingdom of God

When John talks about not loving the world in his first letter, I imagine it to include the worldly way we chose to govern ourselves. Democracy may be functional, but in the words of Winston Churchill, “It’s the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Political power whether it appears in the form of totalitarianism or republic forms of government is itself soaked in the kind of vice that Christians need not love. It is that part of the world that is passing away. With a bit of exegetical liberty, listen to the words of John:

Do not love the world of political power or the things in the world of political power. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world of political power; for all that is in the world of political power —the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world of political power. And the world of political power and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever. (1 Jn 2:15-17, NRSV)

Choose habits that cultivate a love for God’s kingdom and decrease our appetite for political power. Click To Tweet

A helpful practice for me has been the conscious choice not to watch the news, but to read it. I don’t watch political debates or campaign speeches and I watch very little national news. Instead, I read the news. I’ve downloaded the Associated Press app on my phone and I read to stay informed, but I’m not swept into the rhetoric of rage that is so easily transmitted by watching debates, speeches, and especially cable news.

Spend time reading the gospels during this election season and allow the words of Jesus to fill your heart and mind with a vision of God’s in-breaking kingdom. Seek first, as Jesus taught us, God’s kingdom in line with God’s justice, and then everything will be added to us personally and collectively.

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