Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Should Christians even care about politics?

Perhaps the best way to avoid splitting churches over politics is to keep Christians out of politics.  Isn’t this what Jesus wants?  Didn’t he say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Isn’t the world lost and destined for burning?  So why should we get all worked up about political stuff? 

So goes the thinking of some people.  But such thinking is deeply flawed. Consider the discussion with Jesus over paying taxes to Caesar.

They sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
            But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
            “Caesar’s,” they replied.
            Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him. (Mark 12:13–17)

A brilliant parry of his enemies’ efforts to trap him, Jesus words in Mark 12 offer profound and revolutionary insight into the believer’s relationship to government. Note first that Jesus openly talked about tough political issues.

Paying taxes to Caesar infuriated some people. The Jews of that time lived in Palestine under a foreign government, parallel in some ways to the French during the German occupation in World War II (or to Afghans living with foreign soldiers in their streets—a less comfortable parallel for Americans to contemplate). Though cryptic and influenced by the ulterior motives of his opponents, Jesus’ comments nevertheless took seriously the practical social problem presented by the question.

Jesus’ readiness to talk politics reminds us of his claim to rule the whole of life. He means to reign not merely over our private worlds—the world of family, close friends, personal devotions, and so on—but our entire world, including our political life.

Notice that Jesus answers the political question with a command, not just a suggestion: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Our Lord requires appropriate allegiances of us. He does not permit us to treat political questions as non-questions, matters that we can take or leave because they are irrelevant to our obligation to him.

Jesus is the Second Adam, the Messiah who has come to reverse all the damage brought upon human experience by the first  Adam.  Revelation describes him not only as the Lamb of God, but also as he Lion of Judah—the ruler.  To follow him is to be part of his reign—and that has to mean that everything, including social and political life, matters. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Should Christians divide over politics?

Leading up to and following the 2004 election, Woodland Hills Church, an evangelical mega-congregation on the outskirts of St. Paul, Minnesota, caught national attention when it lost twenty percent of its membership because pastor Gregory Boyd refused to endorse a Republican agenda. He refused to do this not because he was pro-choice or because he sought to defend gay marriage (he was conservative on these issues). He did it because of his understanding of the role of the church. “When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses,” Mr. Boyd preached. “When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross” (Laurie Goodstein, New York Times, June 30, 2006). Despite the fact that Rev. Boyd took six sermons to explain himself, one thousand members of the congregation left.
Why, we must ask, did this exodus happen? I suspect that if the thousand had been polled regarding their view of Christ, the centrality of the cross, and the doctrine of the Trinity, they would have been on the same page as the four thousand who stayed. This means that it had to be something else—a lesser thing from God’s perspective—that led to the division. No doubt the reasons from person to person varied in the details, but the fact remains that twenty percent of a church “walked” because of politics—despite the fact that Jesus prays that we “may be one” as he and his Father are one, so that “the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22, 23).

Much is at stake here. If the crucified and risen Messiah cannot hold Democrats and Republicans together under the same roof, if he cannot enable them to work through their differences, then he is not much of a Savior—he certainly is not the Messiah of the world. Stories like Woodland Hills “prove” that in the final analysis, we are a social organization just like any other social organization—united by the same sort of bonds that unite other human groups, and apt to dissolve for the same reasons that other human groups dissolve. This is more than unfortunate. It is disobedient, a betrayal of our Savior, the cause to which he has called us, and the purpose for which he died. It proves that we have allowed our vision for America to capture our hearts more deeply than God’s vision for us as his ambassadors. And the effect is to compromise the power of our testimony to the world.