We are living in an unprecedented time in modern history, one in which a global pandemic has overtaken the attention of so many nations, our own included. And yet, even though we are in a struggle against a virus and disease that themselves are apolitical, at the same time we cannot help but notice the politicized way that conversations regarding COVID-19 are being handled, from the highest levels of government on down. Why can’t we separate the real and present issues at hand from something so everyday and banal as politics?
This reason is simple: Politics matters. They matter because politics inform policies that ultimately impact people. When I read the Bible, people matter to God—including and especially people who are marginalized, oppressed, forgotten, and on the fringes of our larger society. While there are some Christians who’ve chosen to disengage from the political process, remain silent, or retreat to the sidelines, that kind of isolation or retreat from society is not endorsed by me. I believe Christians ought to engage our larger culture—including the many facets and nuances of what we label “politics.”I believe Christians ought to engage our larger culture—including the many facets and nuances of what we label 'politics.' Click To Tweet
On the other hand, we’re living in a cultural context in which it appears and certainly feels as if politics has consumed our lives. Politics not only fills the airwaves of our 24-7 cable news culture but can inundate our daily lives—in conversations, marketplaces, dinner meals, and yes, even within our churches. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se, but it can become toxic if not rooted in a strong biblical and theological foundation. Why? Because the idolatry of politics is eating away at the civic discourse of our nation. But it’s not just in our nation, it’s happening within the Christian community as well.
Since politics is a necessary process of any healthy society, I want to offer the church a practical resource to help Christians navigate the chaotic and turbulent winds of political engagement, not as an end to itself but as an expression of our discipleship as followers of Jesus Christ. I write about this more fully in my book Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk, in which I outline my “Ten Commandments” for engaging in politics:
1 – THOU SHALT NOT GO TO BED WITH POLITICAL PARTIES
2 – THOU SHALT NOT BE A JERK
3 – THOU SHALT LISTEN AND BUILD BRIDGES
4 – THOU SHALT BE ABOUT THE KINGDOM OF GOD
5 – THOU SHALT LIVE OUT YOUR CONVICTIONS
6 – THOU SHALT HAVE PERSPECTIVE AND DEPTH
7 – THOU SHALT NOT LIE, GET PLAYED, OR MANIPULATE
8 – THOU SHALT PRAY, VOTE, AND RAISE YOUR VOICE
9 – THOU SHALT LOVE PEOPLE AND LOVE GOD
10 – THOU SHALT TRUST THAT JESUS REMAINS KING
It is my hope I can urge believers not to go to bed with political parties and their powerful politicians. In doing so, we lose the prophetic ability to speak “truth” to power. I’m not suggesting that Christians stand on the sidelines. But we shouldn’t ever profess blind loyalty to a party. And by party, I mean any party.
This is much of what’s happening today. Cultural “Christianity” has bowed to political loyalties. It’s neither radical nor countercultural in the way of Jesus. Rather, it’s a bastardized and infected form of cultural Christianity. Another word for what I just described is idolatry.
Consider the sharp rebuke from Thomas Merton for both progressives and conservatives:
“I see little real substance in the noisy agitations of progressives who claim to be renewing the Church and who are either riding some rather silly bandwagon or caught up in factional rivalries. As for conservatives they are utterly depressing in their tenacious clinging to meaningless symbols of dead power. Their baroque intertidal, their legalism. Disgust.”
Remember, as believers of Jesus Christ, we are to “seek first the Kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33)… and not the kingdom of our party or respective country. And since this statement likely will elicit strong pushback and feelings, please note there’s a big difference between patriotism and nationalism. Go ahead, be patriotic. I am! I am an immigrant and a child of parents who were born in what is now called North Korea. When they were children, there was only one Korea before the devastating Korean War separated and divided both a nation and millions of families. We immigrated in 1977 when I was six years old. I am one of the millions of immigrants who made their way to the United States and while my story might be unique, I’m a proud, naturalized American citizen who would be quick to share with others the important distinction between patriotism and nationalism.
Nationalism points to a potentially dangerous view of exceptionalism. For example (and for those who identify as Americans), the idea of American exceptionalism can be a dangerous guise for American supremacism. In other words, it functions purely through the lens of worldly power and will do anything to obtain or preserve that power. Now imagine the countercultural stories of Jesus Christ, who must be the central figure of our theology, worship, and life. For example, we must remember the story of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples—especially in a cultural context in which teachers of the law instructed Jewish people not to wash the feet of others because it was considered too menial and dirty. Jesus washing feet is truly radical. This is mind-blowing and heart transforming.
We are inundated by politics, party, and power in these confusing times, but this is precisely why we must be about the Kingdom of God. If you feel hazy about what the Kingdom of God looks like, look to Jesus. He’s not a domesticated puppet of our worldly power structures. The crucified and risen Christ is Lord and Savior. Indeed, we must keep looking to Jesus, whether we are being confronted by a global pandemic or not. Better yet, we must make sure we don’t just admire Him from afar, but actually worship and follow Jesus—His words, His teachings, and His ways—before it’s too late.
If you’re interested in further conversation about this article, join our webinar with Eugene Cho on April 1st, 1 p.m. Eastern, as we discuss how Christians are to engage in politics, and how politics has intersected with the COVID-19 pandemic. Register here!
From the book Thou Shalt Not be a Jerk by Eugene Cho, c. 2020. Used with permission by David C Cook. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.