“I don’t think this space should be political,” she posted to the Facebook group for pastors and worship leaders. “Maybe a worship blog isn’t the best place to bring up politics,” wrote another member, in response to a fellow pastor posting a question about a certain political candidate. I’ve had many interactions like this with colleagues and friends during this election season, and while I’m thankful this brief exchange ended with a gracious statement to respectfully agree to disagree, it called forth questions and convictions within me. I am surprised and often frustrated when the message from the Christian community seems to be “don’t bring politics into faith.” My instinctive response is – but politics are already here, within us, within the church, and of course within our worship; politics are woven in the fabric of how we live our lives and therefore how we live out our faithful witness in the world. We in the church are called to be the voices that help shape the political and day to day realities for people, both for fellow Christians and for those whom Christ tells us to speak up for, so shouldn’t we be talking about how we get on with doing our job?
I have been wrestling with how to address the questions, stubbornness, worries, and caution concerning Christians faithfully embracing political engagement for some time. As a pastor currently engaged in many areas of advocacy and compassion work, a past community organizer around policies to end domestic and global hunger, and someone who did way too much school to understand the mission of the church, I am both encouraged by the growing presence of Christian leaders embracing this aspect of public discipleship, and also concerned by the staggering distance we have left to cover in both our belief and our praxis. I am convinced that the church in the U.S. today needs a much fuller, actively courageous, vibrantly hopeful, and wisely skillful movement of Christ-followers engaged in public politics. And we need to be clearer on how and why this engagement is animated by the Holy Spirit, rooted in our central theological truths about who God is, and shaped by our faith and activity of following Christ – nothing more, nothing less.
As this year’s election season moves into full swing, I am reminded again that many of us in the church, particularly the evangelical world where I am from, have not been well equipped to faithfully engage in politics. So let’s talk about this gap, without fear and trembling, and encourage each other to look more closely at how we hold our politics as a matter of discipleship, witness, and Lordship.
On one hand I get the caution, and the fear about political engagement. I hear the heart behind Christians who voice worry about pastors weighing in on politics online, or professors teaching policy in their classrooms, or what to say when fellow Christians share strong partisan views. And yes, we need to think about how we steward our voices well, use wisdom in our witness and passion, and not be shaped by patterns in the political world that can divide or obfuscate. We all should know by now to not endorse candidates from the pulpit, to keep our finances separate when it comes to lobby work, to be above reproach when it comes to our word and trust, acting with civility, patience, holding disagreement without derision and complexity without concern. There is also the reality of the national political stage, which does not always seem to even want to earn our respect and engagement. Many of us are tired and disillusioned by the process of dissecting candidates and ignoring entire voting groups, media choices to lift up or turn down certain voices, lack of representation for women and many communities of color, long-winded debates and never-ending stump speeches, declining levels of trust in general with our public figures, the rampant abuse of campaign finances, and much more – I get that what we call “the political process” can seem like a hot mess not worth jumping into.
But the church’s response to this mess, this reality of the political processes that govern public life, can get stuck being too escapist, individualistic, reductionist, or anxious. As Christians we all too often seem afraid or uncertain about the mess of politics sucking us in, or taking over our relationships, communities, and worship spaces by dividing us or making us uncomfortable. So our response might become partisan or reactionary, where our faith and politics somehow never intersect, like a friend who explained a veritable treatise outlining his Libertarian beliefs – but when asked where his understanding of Scripture related to it, he simply answered that he had never thought of Scripture speaking to his political values. Or our response might be to withdraw or internalize our political beliefs or questions to avoid conflict, critique or complexity, not thinking we are needed in the conversation “out there” so we can do the “work of the church in here,” as if God didn’t design both realms as inextricably related. Still others seem to be afraid that the mess will infect matters of faith, so they police political conversation, or hedge nervously about active political engagement by Christians.
In part this all makes sense, because we have been told and we often believe that politics divide people, whereas faith should unite us, and that political matters should be kept private while Christ’s love and salvation made public. While that sometimes-palatable story has shaped North America for the last century, it is not biblical, and it is based on a false bifurcation that whispers that faith is only personal, internal, and about heaven, while politics is external, social, and worldly. This lie means that a New Testament fervor around evangelism can be separated from the Old Testament commitment to shalom, instead of woven around the same biblical truth of God’s creation and Jesus’s redemption that is brought about through individual salvation and global righteousness/justice and wholeness. Without examining more fully what our political/global/kingdom witness ought to be, the Church may miss its calling to not only engage with the political mess, but to shape it, influence it, speak to it and call things out of it, and then to see its limits and remain unchanged in our rooted identity as Kingdom people. There are so many good and faithful ways to engage politics, from voting to debating issues with friends, from visiting Capitol Hill to texting about a bill you believe in. There is assisting those who can’t access government services and processes, educating ourselves on how much we all depend on common political and social services, to starting a non-profit or doing private work to meet needs in your neighborhood. There is prayer and prophetic intercession around political realities, confession and lament, there is supporting local and global partners and advocacy work around faith and race, there is praying for national leaders and teaching around policies with students not yet ready to vote. There are protests and signing petitions and going deep into fighting injustices in your city that shape housing, policing, education, green spaces, food access, medical care, etc. etc. etc. Church this is just the beginning of what we can do!
Below are some guiding theological realities that have shaped my journey of understanding political voice as a matter of discipleship. I pray that these might help us each engage our political discipleship.
1. Worship is always political. How, where, with whom, in what language, in what space, and through what theology we worship is inherently political. Even the cross was political. Christ died at the hands of the state on a symbol of national execution outside the city’s border at the gate where power and access were granted. Politics has to do with how we engage (or don’t engage) matters of power, privilege, economics, and policies that shape our lives and often order the steps and access of the hungry, the sick, the prisoner and the most vulnerable, like widows, orphans, and immigrants – and these are all matters that are of deep importance in the biblical witness.
2. Worship is also about Lordship – it is about where we bow, and who or what deserves our allegiance, our praise, our very lives. We cannot uncouple the ways that Christian worship of a Risen Lord and King of the Universe are therefore connected to and should deeply shape what it is in this earthly realm that we give our allegiance, attention, and maybe our vote to. The Lordship question for a Christ-follower was answered long ago – we follow the One King, One Messiah, who is already heading up the only One True Kingdom that matters. This Kingdom of God that draws our allegiance is alive and active, breathing and building, small as a mustard seed, resilient like seeds on rocky soil, powerful as a lamb who makes a lion lay down. While powers and principalities are at work, we have already been covered and called by the power of Christ. We follow the source of life, the call to long-term (eternal) citizenship, and so we have no fear and perfect freedom to speak up, to walk strong, and to advocate together.
3. Kingdom citizenship is communal and binds us to others and to the vision of flourishing for all that God enacted. Political advocacy is not only an individual endeavor, just as all discipleship needs others along the journey, and can be a source of grace when it helps us see our interdependency in community. We are never ultimately defined by our political voice or affiliation because we are kingdom citizens first and last, and so should desire to remain in faithful among others in the church, calling each other to both grace and truth in our politics.
4. Citizenship in this “here now, but not all the way here, yet” kind of Kingdom does not mean that we just bow out early, or somehow leave the mess of our earthly kingdoms for some pie in the sky cloudy promise. The early part of the 20th Century fought through the painful limits of various Christ-followers – whether Fundamentalist or Neo-Evangelicals, tele-evangelists and Prosperity Gospelers, Mainline and Liberal Protestants and more – who all were tempted in different ways to either ignore this world for the next, or focus on a false binary between evangelism and justice, between kingdom belief and kingdom living. Jesus followers have hope in the next world and so we’re called to represent, now, in the flesh, on this earth, incarnate as Christ was, in the questions and in the mess, and yes even sometimes in the ballot box.
5. Our witness and our politics are always cultural – gathering as God’s people on earth is inherently enmeshed with our whole selves. Faith is taught and expressed and then digested by real live people who see, feel, think, and interpret the world each in their own unique way, shaped by politics and culture from top to bottom. To pretend that it is an option – ever – to not have our worship, our Bible, our convictions and our discipleship in the church and in the world shaped by cultural realities like race, gender, economics, sexuality, power, and nationality, is myopic. Of course God’s creation is not dependent on the politics running through our lives – our identity remains in Christ alone. But God chose to create ethnicity, difference, language, diversity, gender and sexuality, and so much more, fleshing out creation in vastly different forms. Cultural expression is part of God’s good creation, and our political responses to how the world understands those differences are also a matter of faith. We can’t ever enact our faith in some neutral space outside of politics or cultural diversity because it doesn’t exist.
6. When faith and politics are engaged, it is okay to disagree – with me, with another pastor, teacher, leader, or just a fellow Christian, whether on a meta-level lens like our hermeneutics, or the particulars of bills and policies. It is okay to even have a little tension, disagreement, and strong opinions rise to the surface, and to raise convicting or troubling questions that create the need for us to ask, listen, work hard, and maybe even change our positions on particular political solutions. Our faith is not so thin that we cannot discuss opposing ideas about how to enact our faithful Kingdom allegiances in this world – in fact it is our faith and our relationship with our God and King of all in the world that roots these conversations, even propels us into spaces of political engagement, advocacy and voice.
Political advocacy and engagement, whether in spaces of worship and community life, or nation-state matters of voting, policies, and budgets, are already all under Christ’s Lordship. That means that it is in these same spaces that Christ-followers are called to be present with eyes to see and ears to hear – not to “start being political,” because we already are; not to “bleed Red or Blue,” but to stand up for those who Christ says we are to remember; not to shout down an opponent or endorse a candidate, but to represent what we think God is already doing in this world. This world – the messy, earthly, full of ugly and beautiful humanity competing with and loving each other, troubled by suffering and overrun with brilliant possibility, home of never-ending CNN coverage and sometimes terrible tweets. This world is our world, it is our Father’s world, and we are invited to take part in the redemptive Kingdom work of God in this world, this mess, now. When we are present in political conversations and advocacy, when we dare to hope and learn and speak up and engage, we are witnessing to our faith. We are helping steward the powers of this world, not for our glory or voting record or budget, but for the glory of the King of all Kings, and the Lord of all Lords. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.