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“Enduring to the End”: Extreme Politics and the Christ-Follower

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Jay Smith, YTI President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

January 30, 2019


Politics in the United States have always been complicated. They are complicated because the Constitution places the basic responsibility of government on individual citizens. The governed choose those who would govern.

 “We the People” are called to use our critical faculties as we cast our vote for those who would represent us in Congress and the Executive branch. To use our critical faculties means that we review the past, we reflect on the present, and look towards the future as we carefully consider the individuals who have the character, credibility, and vision to serve our political concerns, and the ability to work with others to make that vision a reality. This process is neither easy, nor simple. However, it is the price we pay for living in a country that places such a high premium on individual rights and freedom.

Examples from the Old Testament

For Christians, however, our task has another element: faith in Christ. Elements of the Christian life should inform our view of politics and the manner in which we engage. Scripture itself offers very little ‘direct’ information. Israel, as a tribal confederation, relied upon God’s choice of a ‘judge’: a military-minded leader who could restrain the nations around Israel. After Saul, the leadership of Israel was found in David of Bethlehem’s family. After the division of the Kingdom, rulers were drawn from different families, or military leaders.

Examples from the New Testament

In the New Testament, Jesus has one direct reference to the Roman leaders that ruled Judea and the surrounding Palestinian territories: “And He said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s’” (Matthew 22:20-21 NASB). Jesus isn’t suggesting that people of faith not be involved with politics; rather, contributing our services and taxes to the governing authorities is part of our civil responsibility, even when we don’t approve of the government.

There is a second reference, and that comes from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:1-7 NASB)

Remember, Paul’s writing to the Roman church occurs at a time of empire, and that Rome’s emperor during this period was Nero—infamous for his persecution of Christians. Notice, however, that Paul’s admonition reflects Jesus’ statement—his ultimate concern is that we should “Render to all what is due them…”

Politics and the Christ-Follower

Like the earliest church, we live in a time of extreme politics. People of faith are being “weaponized” by some politicians in order to push agendas; other politicians are marginalizing people of faith because they believe them to be to be irrelevant to the contemporary political situation. Contemporary politics blow like the wind; first one direction and then another. Our democratic republic affirms the idea that all people are created equal; regardless of gender, ethnicity, or religious affirmation. Our founders were highly influenced by the political thought of the Enlightenment thinker, John Locke and the religious thought of the English Puritans and Revivalists. It is an interesting marriage of opposites, in which great tension exists. Truly, we vacillate between desiring a religiously- grounded government, and a government that is ‘religion–free.’ Yet the question remains: “How should Christians be involved in a democratic political process—a project in which we have a choice?”

What Is the Process for Christ-Followers?

In America, we have two primary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. There are also several peripheral parties that tend to represent the more extreme concerns of the citizenry: the Libertarian Party and the Green Party. Generally speaking, the ethos of one party is conservative—smaller bureaucracy, strong military, fiscal responsibility, and traditional religious concerns – most prominently a “pro-life” platform, and traditional male-female marriage. The ethos of the other major party is more liberal—focusing on individual rights and freedoms, education, health, and welfare for U.S. citizens. The question we want to answer is not “for whom should Christians vote,” but “what process should Christians follow as they vote?”

Christian theology makes several claims about the Christian life. First, the Christian lives a ‘transformed life.’ The Apostle Paul makes a comparison of the ‘old man’—before Christ—and the ‘new man’—after receiving Christ.  This new life is informed by the Holy Spirit and places love of God-in-Christ, and love for all others, above any worldly concerns. The new-life-in-Christ is central to the Christian worldview. Another crucial aspect of the new-life-in-Christ is a new desire to understand Christ through the Bible. The Scriptures contain the most accurate accounts of who Jesus was, from where Jesus came, the meaning of Jesus’ ministry, the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and what believers can expect in the future. With this in mind, a Christian traditionally come to understand his or her new life in Christ through studying the Bible in the community of faith. This understanding is framed by the transformed life focused on love for God and neighbor; if not, Scripture simply becomes a rule book for pleasing God.

The Process: Question Yourself

In America, we have the great privilege of being able to choose our leaders and approve programs through the democratic processes. With this understanding of the Christian life, here are some perspectives on how Christians should engage the political process. First, we must ask several questions:

1. Are you being asked to reject God and, or, harm those who need you to be a ‘neighbor’—as defined by Jesus?

2. Are you being asked to approve programs that marginalize, disenfranchise, or hurt other people?

3. If the candidate before you claims to be a Christian, does his or her behavior or character reflect a love for God and a love for neighbor?

These questions are seminal to the process. If you answer “yes” to questions one and two, you can be sure that this candidate or program will run contrary to Christian conviction. On question three, if a candidate claims that they are a “Christian” publicly, you have every right to examine their behaviors and characters to find evidence of that faith. If you cannot find character or behaviors that suggest a living faith in Jesus Christ, then you are faced with the issue of hypocrisy—that is, a person who makes one claim, only to act in such a manner that the claim is brought into question or evidenced as an outright lie. Jesus had a problem with hypocritical actions and so should we in publicly elected officials.

The Process: Involve Yourself

Second, we must be involved with the process. In other words, to be obedient to our democratic government means that we should be involved. Running for office, engaging with our elected representatives, voicing our concerns, and voicing our approval are important for our government to function.  It also means that we should be obedient. Once the elections have taken place and our votes are cast, we need to pay heed to the laws that have been enacted or to the people we have elected. If we are in the minority, it becomes even more important that we respect our elected officials, even while voicing our concerns, and planning for an election with a different outcome.

Endure in Extreme Politics

Respect is what makes our democracy work. Respect when the outcome is the one you desired, and respect when the outcome is something you had hoped to avoid. What makes a Christian different in this world? Our master is not the temporal government of our world, but rather the Lord of Heaven and Earth! Christians, rise above the muck and mire of the politics of this time! You are servants of Christ, and our world needs us to be exemplars of the love, truth, and justice of the reign of God. Endure to the end; love God with a fierce loyalty, and love your neighbor with gentle servanthood. It is only then that our democracy—and our world—can change.