Right Wing, Wrong Bird: Part 2

In part two of “Right Wing, Wrong Bird,” Dr. Joel C. Hunter gives six steps to a new understanding of political engagement. To read part one, click here


Step 1: Get Away from Confrontational Demonstration—to Think

I define a demonstration as one or more people confronting us with a political issue. The confrontation has the effect of arousing our emotions and capturing our attention. For Pilate, both Jesus the controversial religious leader and the mob who brought Him were demonstrations.

The primary step in addressing religio-political situations is to calm down so that the atmosphere will permit reason. Pilate’s major mistakes began with his assumption that he could reason in that setting with those demonstrators. He discovered how perpetually inflammatory a situation can become when a major religious figure or issue is put in a political setting. Yet intentional demonstrations are more for show than for reason. Demonstrators desire to have a point understood, not debated.

Are political demonstrations bad? If demonstrations were deemed inherently evil, we would need to ban both the Republican and Democratic conventions. They are, basically, political demonstrations orchestrated to get points across to the American people.

The good of demonstrations becomes evident when we realize that most people, like Pilate, will not take action on any issue until confronted. Demonstrations are a way to move a particular issue up the value scale of the intended audience, and a way of provoking response. Would the Vietnam War have ended as quickly without all of the demonstrations that caused political pressure? Probably not. Would we have the advancements in civil rights today without the demonstrations of the 1960s? Probably not. From the sympathy evoked by pictures of police dogs tearing into peaceful marchers, to the fear evoked by the race riots, our attention was captured. The government was also confronted by those demonstrations, and legislation plus favorable court decisions resulted.

If the demonstration is a group of people instead of a candidate, there are several ways that we can prepare the demonstration stage for purposes of higher thought. The most effective way is separating the time of the demonstration from the time we make the decision about the issue. Pilate felt hard-pressed for an immediate decision. He feared for his safety, his reputation and his job. Emotional provocation centers the basis for decision making on us, not on the issue at hand. While that is understandable and valid, it is only part of the consideration. Time is needed to quell inner fears. We need to ask rational questions such as, “What is best for the common good?” or “What is the opposite side to the one being presented by the demonstration?” or “What do the emotions in me have to do with the issues at hand?”

Separation of confrontation and thinking implies not only time but also space. We can avoid Pilate’s mistake by postponing a decision and separating physically from the demonstration. Whether those trying to convince us are face to face with us or are entering our living room through the television, we must not be intimidated into a reactive position. We can walk away to think; we can turn off the television to talk with a variety of other people.

It seldom occurs to any of us that we do not have to take a given side in order to take a stand. We are in a position to collect various insights. We are not confined to an ultimatum. Far from adding confusion, taking time to note others’ opinions will put our political decisions in a new category. We may be able to add insight instead of only receiving it. And the stand we finally take will be truly ours instead of “theirs.” Broadening our basis for decision not only dilutes the pressure to decide, but it also makes more potent the capacity to decide with accuracy.

Step 2: Overlook a Narrow Religious Perspective

Truth is stranger than fiction; truth is also stronger than friction. It seems logical to assume that Christianity is strongest when it is most forceful. It also seems logical to assume that if the Christian tradition is under attack, we should fight back. It is almost inconceivable that, at a point when religion is most desperately needed, we would detach ourselves from religious terms. It would be so natural to respond to mockery with a counterattack.

Both Jesus and the religious crowd were threatened, but the two reacted differently. The Jews tried to protect their religion by complaining to the authorities. They organized as much political force as they could muster. They mobilized a campaign to save the country—a campaign based on accusation, negativism and fear. They won the debate and missed the point.

Jesus, on the other hand, offered no defense. He was not interested in justifying Himself. He was interested in truth: “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:37). He used no religious talk. He used the highest universal goal—the truth—and was confident that those who were seeking the truth would understand Him. Such a strategy made Him vulnerable; such a strategy made Him invincible.

It is sobering today to find Christians choosing the political strategy of the crowd instead of that demonstrated by Jesus. It will cost us more than we realize. If we choose to defend our religion rather than seek the whole truth, we will lose three very important capacities: (1) We will lose our ability to see God outside of our own tradition; (2) we will lose our capacity to influence people in any positive sense toward God; and (3) we will lose the opportunity to grow in our own faith.

When voters choose to limit themselves to the singular strategy of defending a religious tradition, they minimize their capacity to positively influence other people toward God. When we are so narrowly focused upon our own concerns, we cannot expect others to truly hear us. When the religious crowd presented its concerns to Pilate, he did not investigate. Instead, he promptly declared, “I find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4). How could he decide so fast? Pilate reacted not to their statements but to their motivation. Pilate could see that their motivation was envy (see Matthew 27:18). He had no trouble perceiving that their political ends were focused upon their own benefit. He had no desire to help them or to join them in their goals.

Christians who defend a religious tradition are similarly dismissed. And why shouldn’t we be? The world doesn’t give a hoot about our religion, and they will not give one until they perceive that we care more about all people than our own interests. If evangelicals in politics cause people to dismiss Christianity because of our defense of it, how tragic that is!

We are called to be witnesses (see Acts 1:8), to point beyond ourselves. Christ shows us two important prerequisites to witnessing. First, we need to get rid of the counterattack mentality. Counterattack not only kills our own search for truth, but it also kills everyone else’s as well. Jesus quietly and calmly told the truth when under fire. The truth was His strength. He did not need any other justification: “But Jesus made no further answer; so that Pilate was amazed” (Mark 15:5).

The second prerequisite that Jesus modeled was His use of nonreligious language. Religious terms can shut people out. Why then do we insist on speaking Christianese? We may hope that quoting Scripture chapter and verse to back up our points, or shouting “Amen!” to a speech, will communicate something of the Spirit to people. It does communicate a spirit—a spirit of exclusion, because the words we’ve chosen convey the meaning we intend only to those of our own group.

The search for truth in any issue or candidate puts religious and nonreligious people on common ground. As any Christian who is honest admits, the revealed truth of Scripture does not automatically transfer to the contemporary issues of our nation. Scripture does not replace the gathering of facts. It does not save us from the need to calculate the consequences of our vote. Scripture does not relieve us from the need to draw truth from those with a different perspective. All truth is God’s truth. The search for truth is hampered by special lingo that would make communication unwelcome or more difficult. Any statement that sounds religious rather than moral creates walls.

A true test of Christianity in politics is this: Are a great variety of people benefited by our political stance, even people who are not of our faith? We are following the footsteps of Christ when we work hard to assist others, even when their political stance is different from our own, and when we talk in terms that communicate to everyone.

Step 3: Observe Deep Principles Rather than Shallow Politics

The religious crowd missed the truth because they were too focused on religion. Pilate missed it because he was too focused on politics. Looking at issues and candidates only as religious conduits is wrong. Thinking through candidates’ strategies and issues will always help us in searching for truth.

Politics is the art of fixing conflict. It can be more than that, but it seldom is. Pilate typified the temptation to temporarily quell a disturbance rather than make a decision that would stand the test of time. Pilate thought of a quick solution, not a principle. He thought in terms of relief, not in terms of a cure.

The great benefit Christians should bring to the American political process is one of depth. Those who see the world in more than one dimension, who think in terms of ages longer than this life, are valuable voices. The basis of our decision to follow Christ was that we would live in light of the future. That basis is also best for politics but is quite rare. Politics, as Pilate knew, gets so complicated that attention shifts to the details of the moment rather than the long-term results. Politics is compromise. Politics is swapping favors. At times the process involves the very real ultimatum “You can secure your own political future, or you can do what you know to be right.” The threat in John 19:12 reflects this practical-versus-principle battle. The crowd threatened Pilate by saying, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar’s.” Pilate heard that his political life was at stake.

We are being killed by our weakness for stopgap measures and temporary fixes. We have embraced convenience thinking rather than consequential thinking. We also do not seem to realize that every action we take is a precedent. The convenience-versus-consequences thinking sounds like a neat cliché from a flippant sermon, but it is actually a form of immaturity that has dire side effects.

When Pilate saw his decision in terms of his own convenience, in terms of his own political life, he did not consider that if the claims of Christ were true, the consequences of his actions meant his spiritual condemnation. Was Jesus really on trial that day? No, Pilate was. Every decision that relieves us of an individual responsibility has a price. Other people, including our children, will have to pay it. In a very real sense, we too are on trial.

Those who follow Christ can offer much-needed reminders that principles should guide practicality, not the other way around. On the major issues, we need to ask our representatives what principles are guiding their specific decisions. As in any job, the daily routines of those in office can make it simpler to justify whatever will work in the moment and relegate principles to the background. Christians who live their lives based on deeper-than-surface concerns are the part of “We, the people” who can remind their representatives of the principles and ask those important questions.

Step 4: Decide from Prayer and Scriptural Principles

There is a public-private conflict inherent in the structure of American politics. The political ideal calls individuals to make decisions for the good of the whole group. Political strategy tries to persuade individuals to make those decisions on the basis of loyalty to a particular subgroup’s interests. The first requires the person to act as an individual; the second influences him not to think as an individual.

Groupthink is as attractive to many individuals as it is to political strategists. Groupthink can eliminate the uncomfortable process of individual study of the Scriptures, prayer and contemplation of the issues. It can also eliminate the threat of ostracism.

But group-based voting has a strong, if deteriorating, history in our country. More specifically, religious group-based voting has a stronger precedent than most of us have been taught. In the beginning days of our country, it would have been no surprise to find people voting on the basis of their religious group given the intense sectarianism of the earliest communities. But also from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, religious group-based voting has been a factor.

The Pilate Process would question the value of group decision making. Both Pilate and the religious crowd made their decisions about Jesus on the basis of their group identity. They missed the truth because they were not open to accepting all the facts, and they had the wrong guides. “The chief priests and the elders persuaded the multitudes to ask for Barabbas, and to put Jesus to death” (Matthew 27:20). All who were involved were under tremendous pressure to conform to a predetermined political decision. Pilate, a representative of the Roman Empire, was not much more free from his own group identity. As an individual, though, he had a decision to make. He could have made it on the basis of his closeness to Jesus, but he was a member of the ruling party. History had dealt him a most important hand; but at the mere mention of Caesar, he folded.

See Also

Politics is essentially a group activity. But, as with religion, it must be primarily an individual decision tied to a heart for people and unwavering values from Scripture.

Whether God leads all praying Christians to vote the same is not the point. Living all of life like Jesus is the point. One truth stands self-evident: The unity we seek will certainly never come from politics or human agreement. If it is unity for which we hope, our only hope is in the Holy Spirit. God does not speak with a forked tongue. Eventually we will all hear the same thing from Him. But first we must train ourselves to think like Christ (see 1 Corinthians 2:16). Our ultimate commitment is to let Him be our guide in personal decisions about everything, including politics.

Step 5:Act!

If we know what the Bible says and we receive a direct leading in prayer, and we do not take action, then we are fools or traitors or cowards. We don’t need to be super-spiritual to be led by God. No scriptural record shows that Pilate ever prayed; yet he had a clear inkling about the innocence of Jesus. The Gospel of John records that no less than three times Pilate voiced the feeling that Jesus had “no guilt” (see John 18:38; 19:4,6). If skeptical Pilate could have an inkling, can’t Christians expect the inner leading of God? Because of the inner leading, “Pilate made efforts to release Him. . . . he then handed them over to them to be crucified” (John 19:12,16). On the other hand, when Jesus walked out of the garden from prayer, no person or circumstance could keep Him from His decision to follow His Father’s leading.

Action perfects our faith, our witness and our world. James 2:22 reads, “As a result of the works, faith was perfected.” The Greek word for “perfected” means “brought to its proper fulfillment” or “completed in its appropriate use.” God is interested in developing in us a faith perfected by works. He wants our faith to grow by what we do. His desire for us is not mere behavioral change (which is what politics desires); His desire is that our faith be increased by our actions. The health of our faith is determined by exercising it. Faith not dear enough to stimulate action is dead.

Action also perfects our witness. Not only is God waiting for us to participate politically, but so is the world. Do we mean what we believe? How will the world know if we do not act upon what we believe? Let’s not be intimidated by secular people who disparage Christian involvement in politics. It is not the Christian involvement but usually the manner and the tone of Christian involvement that bothers them. Nonbelievers watch to see whether the followers of Christ will ever make a significant difference outside the walls of their churches.

God loves people. He loves us enough that He does not exclude government as a tool by which He can inspire us to help each other. Through our government we have the chance to profoundly influence the lives of people all over the world. No, we cannot convert them through government. Yes, their eternal salvation is most important. That does not mean that every other provision that could be made through government is unimportant. It doesn’t mean that the stewardship of the earth is not a concern because conversion is. Our government has certain powers, minor next to God’s, but still rather potent. Our government can feed the hungry, relieve people from oppression, and even model strength with integrity to the world. But without action from the Christ-followers in our nation, that potential will be incomplete, unfulfilled or morally destructive.

God will call some people to unique service in government. He has done that historically with kings such as David, vice pharaohs such as Joseph, judges such as Samson and Deborah, queens such as Esther, and prophets such as Nathan. But how many Davids or Josephs or Nathans does God need? If He is not calling us to be the leading government official, what then will He call most of us to do?

Step 6:Cooperate with Others and Encourage Understanding

Cooperation and tolerance are not twins: Cooperation ennobles while tolerance is likely to corrupt. Cooperation is active; tolerance is passive. Cooperation is neither afraid of nor destroyed by conflict. Many of us have failed to distinguish between the two.

Tolerance is often based in indifference. Cooperation is a virtue of hard work; indifference is a sin of laziness. Both our nation and the Lord require of us maximum effort to effect our destiny. On the experiential level, individual participation is demanded, and passion is required. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote, “Americans can take pride in their nation, not as they claim a commission from God and a sacred destiny, but as they fulfill their deepest values in an enigmatic world. America remains an experiment. Only hard work at the experiment will achieve the destiny. The outcome is by no means certain.” Scripture calls for the same passion in our efforts. Christ chided the people of Laodicea when He said, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16).

Indifference disguised as tolerance is not acceptable. We cannot hang our acceptance of other people’s opinions over shrugged shoulders. Cooperation requires caring about and participating with the opposition. It involves healing by hearing without retreat. It involves healing by offering our side without apology, whatever the reaction. Cooperation is emotional work.

There is little hope, understanding or communication without cooperation. Unfortunately, and ironically, many individuals who are the most intense about their faith are the least cooperative. The intensity-cooperative link is a stumbling block to the unbelieving world that looks for purity of religion and love to be combined. Some Christians are much more prone to the negative than the positive. It is easier to state what we hate than what we love.

The difference between Christians and their Lord is not one of intent but of maturity. We have not yet “become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). When Christians mature to the point that our intensity and inclusiveness combine, we will be a healing presence in politics and everywhere else. There will be great breadth in our worldview while we fix our eyes upon Jesus (see Hebrews 12:2). There will be a freedom in our ability to understand and a discipline in our thinking. Cooperation will be more joy than challenge.

Talking to others is a way to refine our public service goals and learn how we can cooperate to achieve them. Conversation helps us understand how others perceive our ideals, and it helps us shape those ideals into service.

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