How Should Christians Engage Politics?
By Kurt Willems
September 25, 2012
Kurt Willems (M.Div., Fresno Pacific) is an Anabaptist writer preparing for a church-planting project with Urban Expression and the Brethren in Christ. He writes at the Pangea blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook.
Every hour my Facebook news feed is dominated by weak sloganeering endorsing this or that policy or political figure. Very little truth-telling happens when our sensationalist culture sets the standard.
Yet I’m convinced that the complexities of politics and Christian faith can be narrowed down to the following: Speak truth, be truth, that’s it!
One of the roles of the people of God is to be a voice for truth in a world full of parodies. Lies or half-truths come to us on the left and right, trying to trap us in a “this or that” war of words. Media, as it has always done, pulls us into a binary mode of thought causing us to speak about political matters on their terms.
Yet Jesus and the early church offer a better way. In the tradition of the prophets (who spoke out against the surrounding nations and Israel when either was guilty of facilitating socially oppressive policies) the early church boldly proclaimed that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” implicitly claiming that Caesar isn’t.
The people of God are always called to live as a counter-culture, the sort that is such a contrast that the kingdoms of this world want what we have to offer.
Jesus Himself criticized the political system within Israel that failed to uphold justice. He was in fact the last of Israel’s prophets, and in continuity with these prophets declared a politically loaded statement as His inaugural address:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4.18-19, quoting Isaiah 61).
In speaking these words, Jesus recaptured an old Hebraic political truth over and against the puppet reign of Herod and ultimately the Romans. This claim by Jesus reminds readers that the politics of Israel (as part of the Roman Empire) failed to create spaces for human flourishing. Both the agendas of the nationalistic Jews and the Jewish compromisers contradicted the vision of Jubilee, so Jesus confronted hypocritical social injustice built into the structures of the day. This is speaking truth to power.
Later, Jesus criticizes the political realities in Israel more directly (again, under Rome’s leadership):
“How terrible for you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others” (Luke 11.42).
The Pharisees hated the Romans but played into the political reality of the time in order to bring about the liberation of Israel. Their agenda was not merely a “spiritual” one as many suppose. They acted politically and Jesus spoke against the structures they created. As N.T. Wright writes in Luke for Everyone:
[T]he Pharisees were a pressure group in what we would call the social and political sphere … Jesus saw very clearly that there were many self-appointed teachers in the world of first-century Judaism who were using their learning partly for their own status and partly for their own political ends.So, in this instance Jesus spoke truth to one political agenda of His day. Jesus was not apolitical, but also not overly obsessed with aligning with a particular agenda. His agenda was to speak truth to social injustice and to be truth for the cause of the highest justice—God’s reign.
Modern examples of prophetic truth-tellers within the church are Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu. Dr King not only fought racism, but spoke against an unjust war and for better labor rights for working class people as he rallied in favor of unions. Desmond Tutu spoke truth as he called South Africa to reconcile as one people, leaving behind the evils of Apartheid. God calls the church to speak truth, as Dr. King once said: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”
Our hope is in something even better—a political rebel, killed by the government of his day and raised to life by God.
The role of the church is to speak prophetically on behalf of those who suffer injustice, no matter the sort of political system we find ourselves within. Speaking doesn’t mean becoming obsessed with a secular political process, but that we remind the system that it is ultimately subject to King Jesus and must therefore act justly for the poor, sick, immigrant and elderly.
In discerning when to speak truth, we ought to ask, as Shane Hipps has suggested: “What will alleviate the most suffering?” The government’s action or lack of action can cause injustice, so we ought to speak up for those without a voice, those whom with the prophets, Jesus, and the early church often identified.
Although various regimes may only listen to our truth-critiques, our claims bear absolutely no weight when we fail to live out the sort of reality we endorse. The people of God are always called to live as a counter-culture, the sort that is such a contrast that the kingdoms of this world want what we have to offer.
To be truth is to live in such a way that no matter the government, those in our midst are lifted up into their full potential as human image-bearers. This is the primary political summons as followers of King Jesus. We certainly see this modeled throughout the book of Acts (not to mention throughout the whole New Testament):
There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need (Acts 4.34-35).
We don’t depend on a government to carry out justice. At times it will, usually it won’t. We depend on transformed disciples to live into self-sacrificial love. God consistently called the nations to implement systems that create space for humans to be dignified. Simultaneously, God calls the church to create an even better localized alternative that goes beyond the superficialities of even the “best” governments. This is how “speaking truth” and “being truth” work together.
When American politics lure us into media driven arguments about the next best hope for now until 2016, let’s speak and be truth. That’s how I’d summarize the role of Christians in this politically loaded season. Our hope is in something even better—a political rebel, killed by the government of his day and raised to life by God. This hope dethrones the powers (visible and invisible) and compels us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven … ”