Original post at http://wrestledwithangels.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/mixing-religion-and-politics/
Here is a little unknown fact about me: I once enjoyed engaging in national and international politics. I would watch CSPAN and enjoy it. I got into the national debates. I was entertained by state politics. I started college determined to major in Political Science. I was set on working in the field of politics. I did not want to be a politician but I wanted to work on a political team. I had ambition to be a behind the scenes person. I wanted to be the one who done the research and put together reports. I ended up getting a minor in Political Science and a major in Philosophy.
Like almost every other American, I had bought into the lie that religion was a private affair. Religion deals with my inner experience. It helps shape my values. But it does nothing for the real world, I grew up being convinced. It doesn’t belong in economics, education, or politics. Faith and religion should not claim a place in the public arena because that is where the experts are needed with their “facts” of how to run the world. The Church’s job is the salvation of souls not the shaping of the world.
Call it a renewing of the mind or willingness to take the Scriptures seriously, but something changed my perspective. The Old Testament tells the story of God calling forth a people to make public God’s reign through them. These people were to be a “light to the nations” and be a sign of God’s presence in the world. They were to live out their election as God’s chosen people in all aspects of their life in hopes that all the nations would come under the reign of God. When they forgot their call and rebel, God sends them into exile. And yet, even in foreign lands they were to live as God’s people. Prophets were sent to remind them of their identity and that God’s promise of a coming messiah was still on the horizon.
With this story in the background, Jesus appears calling together a new people in a new Zion, the Church; people from all walks of life, from every nation, tribe, and language coming together to form the new Israel. We are people who are no longer strangers but brothers and sisters.
I have considered what it means that the religious and political forces were the ones who crucified Jesus. I began to ask myself what it truly means to declare “Jesus is lord?” It has to be more than a private affair. The power of Christ is above all “rule and authority and power and dominion, and above ever name that is named,” according to Paul in Ephesians (Eph. 1:21). There will be a day when he will rule from the kingdom of God after “every ruler and every authority and power” has been destroyed (I Cor. 15:24). Jesus is the “head of every ruler and authority” (Col. 2:10). If his authority and reign is above all other powers, where must my loyalty be found? If in the end of the ages, “Every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:10) then I wanted to be serving the one whose kingdom is eternal.
It is clear that the Church is political. There was a Roman law called cultus privatus that gave freedom to every religion to pursue itself strictly in manners of personal and spiritual salvation. Religions in the first century Roman world flourished under this protected law. It was permitted because it did not challenge the political order. However, why did the early Church refuse the protection? Why did they continue to speak out publicly about their faith? Why did the Church choose to go head-to-head with the Roman government instead of keeping their faith private? Why risk being torn a part limb to limb by wild animals in public display? Why risk losing home, children, and life? Because they understood that the statement “Jesus is lord” is as much a political statement as it is a religious statement. As a matter of fact, declaring “Jesus is lord” brings the political and religious together. There can be no longer be any dividing of the two.
The Apostle Peter writes a letter to a group of Churches in Asia. These are Christians who have come from a Pagan background. They were told to “not be conformed” to their former ways (1:14) and reminded that they have been ransomed from “the futile way of their ancestors” (1:18). They have already spent enough of their life living outside the will of God (4:3). There seems to be those who are ridiculing them for their new life (4:4). But they are called to remain faithful to the one who has called them.
It is hard to remain faithful when they are undergoing suffering. These early Christians are living as minorities in a world dominated by different religions and a political structure that does not see them as outstanding citizens. Matter of fact, they are viewed as and unruly to the state. They are not to be trusted. The Christians are outcast and not welcomed as citizens. Flash mobs would ransack their businesses, destroy their homes, and leave them beaten on the streets. And yet, if they had chosen to simply stay silent and keep their faith private then they could live in peace along with all the other religions and differing worldviews of the time.
They understand themselves as people who live in the in-between. They live between the “already” – God’s reign through Jesus – and the “not yet” – the completion of that reign is still to come. They live as people with a hopeful expectation. This stance alienates them from their world. For wherever they live, they are not at home, for their home is defined by the kingdom of God. They understand their inheritance is “kept in heaven” (I Peter 1:3). It is a city “that is yet to come” (Hebrews 13:14). The early Jesus followers knew that their “citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that [they] are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:20). It is a city that will one day descend as they are taught to pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.” Because of this they cannot refuse to proclaim it. They cannot refuse to stay silent. The kingdom of God is coming. The reign of God is on its way. Jesus is truly lord rather we believe it, see it, or acknowledge it.
The truth of Jesus is a public truth. A private truth for a limited number of people is no truth at all. It is either true for everyone or a lie. If we think the truth of Jesus is simply a private manner, then it will be only a manner of time that we will refuse to live by this truth at all. Genuine faith living by the truth of Christ must be brought into the public arena of politics and culture. It must be held up against every aspect of human life. If we choose to keep faith away from the place where decisions are made about how life is governed and shaped, then it will make no difference even in the private life of the individual.
On this Memorial Day Weekend we take time to recognize the sacrifice and duty of those who serve the nation. I am truly thankful for the ones whose commitments have given us the freedoms to enjoy our hot dogs, chips, families, and friends on this weekend. But as a follower of Jesus, I recognize that this nation is not the final authority. It along with all the other nations of the world will one day bend its knee to the lordship of Jesus Christ. In the meantime, Jesus is bringing together a people to be a sign of his coming reign.
The Church is the gathering of God’s people who proclaim in public the lordship of Christ. We serve as a witness to the reign of Jesus. We assert that God, not nations rule the world. The boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend all other boundaries. The Church is political in declaring that Jesus is lord. For in this declaration we are saying all other powers and authorities must submit to him. Haeurwas and Willimon in The Resident Alien say, “The political task of the Church is to simply be the Church.” The world is shown through the politics of the Church that forgiveness, love, and justice is possible in a world filled with hatred, indifference, and division. The politics of the Church is going the extra mile and loving enemies. The politics of the Church is loving the neighbor regardless if the neighbor has the right papers or legal status. The politics of the Church is to live as free people but not at the expense of others.
Leslie Newbigin, missiologist, once asked, “Can one who goes the way of the Cross sit in the seat of Pilate when it falls vacant?” Other words, “Can one be a follower of Jesus and serve the politics of a particular nation?” “Can one sit in the seat of power and speak on behalf of the powerless?” There is no easy answer. It is one that requires a lot of prayer and wisdom. I suppose our politicians who claim the name Christian will say you can. Some will even say it is their calling.
For the rest of us, our role as followers of Jesus is to constantly remind them of truth. When they start talking in generalize terms about justice and love; it is our role as a church to remind them of the story of Jesus and what love and justice truly look like. When they start talking about peace that it means more than the absent of conflict. When the men and women of politics start saying they are on the side of the poor that the needs of the poor are not simply measured by the wants of the rich. So, you see, I guess I never left the world of politics when I entered ministry and neither have any of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus.