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Campolo believes that by engaging both parties, Christians can begin to see change. “Many of us are looking to gain access to the policymakers. We need to be with the opinion makers of our party, and I would hope that Red Letter Christians would be working with opinion makers of the Republican Party,” Campolo says.
While Claiborne and Haw would not discourage political involvement, they warn that Christians should be wary about aligning themselves too closely with the political system. Ultimately, they feel that nationalism in general is often misplaced.
“One of the things that’s so troubling when Christianity and America become so fused together is that what becomes at stake when things like Iraq happen is not just the reputation of America, but the reputation of what it means to be Christian, because it’s been totally baptized in Christian language and the blessing of God,” Claiborne says. “I certainly learned that when I was [in Iraq]. One woman said, ‘Your government is creating tremendous bloodshed and asking God’s blessing. It’s the same thing my government is doing. But what kind of God would bless this? What happened to the God of love and the Prince of Peace?’ For us, the litmus test for whether we’re a Christian nation is, does it look like Jesus? We didn’t invent Christianity in America.”
Haw adds that the idea of nationalism is often theologically unsound. He says that being “born again” should mean, from a theological standpoint, that Christians have a new and different citizenship. “Theologically, born again didn’t just mean that you have a spiritual attitude to your life. It literally meant that you’re joining into this people of Abraham that are a holy nation, set apart. There seems to be evidence all over the Bible that this is a very concrete people. You’re latching yourself onto this other nation. Now when you use the word we or our, your identity is connected to a different group of people, a diasporic people. That’s not just linguistic gymnastics. It’s biblical realism. Without that, our nationalism is misguided.”
Claiborne says that this was a concept understood well by the early Church. In a time when allegiance to Rome was not only expected, but required, early Christians maintained a peculiarity and attitude set apart from the empire in which they lived. “The early Christians said a Christian could only be emperor if he decided not to be a Christian,” Claiborne says. “There was a deep collision of identities between your citizenship on earth and your citizenship in heaven.”
It’s a collision that Haw and Claiborne believe Christians should still feel. “It is this question that will forever be asked: Can we serve two masters, the Church and the State?” Haw says. “Are our arms big enough to carry the cross and the sword? Caesar’s flag can easily show up on God’s altars, but Christians didn’t always buy it. Tertullian said, ‘The divine banner and the human banner do not go together, nor the standard of Christ and the standard of the Devil. Only without the sword can the Christian wage war. The Lord has abolished the sword.’”
Thus, say Claiborne and Haw, Christians should belong to a citizenship that is transnational. “What does it mean to be born again?” Claiborne asks. “For Christians, there’s got to be a sense that there’s something that runs deeper than what’s born of the flesh—my biology, my ethnicity, my nation-state. Our central identity is in this reborn people of God that’s transnational.”
In this context, patriotism can seem like a vice. However, Claiborne and Haw believe it’s all about keeping an appropriate perspective. “A love for our own people is not a bad thing, but it’s a love that doesn’t stop at the border,” Claiborne says.
Claiborne believes Christians can celebrate the good in America without falling prey to the idea that the United States, rather than Christ, is the hope of the world. “We want to celebrate the things that America and leaders of this country do well and right,” he says. “There’s plenty of them, but there’s also plenty of things historically and currently that don’t look like Jesus. That’s why it’s so important to differentiate them. Our hope and what we’re called to is to remind the world of Jesus, to be like Jesus, to take the words of Jesus seriously. We will applaud people when they do that, and we will interrupt and prophesy when they don’t.”
With this in mind, how can we chart a new course? How can we see society transformed when we have to be wary of involvement in the system? Claiborne and Haw believe that the importance lies in keeping our perspective. “There are a lot of models in Scripture,” Claiborne says. “There are prophets who are on the margins. There are prophets in the royal court. There are people who are engaged in a lot of different ways. One of the tricky things is to maintain the peculiarity and the distinctiveness of being a Christian.”
This peculiarity can indeed be difficult to maintain when we thrust ourselves into being active participants in a two-party system, when neither party fully upholds the ethics of Christ. However, Claiborne believes Christians can work within the system as long as they remain unwilling to sacrifice certain principles.
“For those of us working legislatively, we can’t compromise on things like, ‘We’re going to beat our swords into plowshares,’” he says. “That’s what we’re called to, and to bless the poor and meek. If we don’t hear any of these parties saying something that embodies that, then we don’t put our hand in with it. There are a number of ways you can call that. You can work for the Kingdom of God and align yourself with whatever seems to move us closer to that. It’s possible to say we’re also going to interrupt with grace and humility whatever seems to be standing in the way of the reign of God. One way of looking at voting is that it’s damage control. We’re in a sense voting against whatever is going to do the worst damage.”
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