American Christians have a long legacy of trying to parse out exactly what counts as political so that we can engage with the parts of the world that go untouched by the corrupting influences of politics. But politics color all aspects of our collective life. Disengaging from politics is impossible, and the effort to do so is an abdication of our responsibility as image bearers.
One hurdle to a proper understanding of the relationship between spiritual formation and political engagement is establishing the legitimacy of human government in general. Various theological and historical forces have frequently diminished the significance of human government, either regarding it as entirely evil or as belonging to a lower order of creation. But just as God created humans for cultural and social life, He created them for political life as well. The meaning of that word political is important. It can signify statecraft—the exercise of coercive power for the sake of ordered governance. However, it also has a broader meaning. It signifies the means by which we shape our common life together. While the creational nature of statecraft has been debated by theologians since the patristic era, there’s no real disputing that humans are social creatures and that our common life together is an important theological concern. In this piece, politics will be used in this wider sense to refer to the various ways humans live together, exercise authority and seek the common good.
The first commands given to humanity in Genesis 1:28 are to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Political action begins in creation, as Adam and Eve are given instructions to discover and creatively use the natural resources God has gifted them. They are commissioned to cultivate His creation, to be agents of His rule on earth and to create further order and beauty within it.
The image is a way of “authorizing” humanity — delegating the legitimate exercise of power and use of resources in order to further God’s purpose on earth. This concept of the imago Dei is rooted in the Ancient Near Eastern concept of the “image of God” be-stowed on kings as earthly representatives of divine rule. The inextricable linking of the imago Dei with the delegation of authority means that unlike the Babylonian and Assyrian empires that concentrated power in a few privileged people, the Genesis account dignifies political work as the shared task of humanity.
I’ve written much of this in coffee shops — wonderful examples of humanity’s creative authority in the world. It starts when a person takes a part of God’s good creation, coffee beans, and cultivates them, harvests them, and to this natural resource applies creativity—roasting, grinding, brewing—and makes something new and beautiful out of it. Then some other people decide they want to sell the fruit of their labors to others, but instead of offering a merely transactional experience, they decide to create something new: a space where people can enjoy the cultural artifact they have created, in community. They apply their human creative capacities to build an aesthetically pleasing shop, design a menu, and promote their vision for their business. Then people come and build their own creative projects in the coffee shop—relationships, businesses, music, writing, art. The place fosters community and creativity of its own.
Politics reflects our good creational order in the same way — humans take the raw materials God has blessed His creation with — such as intelligence, land, and human relationships — and they creatively cultivate those things. Some of our other pursuits require the creative endeavor of politics to function well: our businesses need roads and city plans, the conflicting interests of our enterprises need mediation, our societies need guardrails for creative production. And just as a coffee shop can exploit its workers, shortchange its customers, or merely prioritize moneymaking over community making, our political systems and political work are impacted by our sinful nature and broken world. That does not make those creative endeavors irredeemable or ultimately worthless; it makes them imperfect witnesses to God’s good creation, just as everything else we do.
The very makeup of Israel as a community is evidence that God is not indifferent about material communal realities like patterns of land use and ownership, family obligations, and our stewardship of economic resources. The institution of sabbath, which we often associate with spiritual renewal or physical rest, was more fundamentally an institution through which to regulate economic and social life around God’s provision for the poor and wealthy alike. We tend to disregard the particular legal regulations that formed Israel as a nation, but they illuminate an important theological truth: God cares about the ordinary and procedural ways that we organize our communities.
Our participation in politics, then, is an expression of the created order and our created identity, and it is revelatory of the fulfillment of God’s creative redemption. The picture in Revelation of the ultimate reconciliation of humanity and God, the perfect redemption of heaven and earth, is not the same as the picture in the beginning. Redemption doesn’t mean everything goes back to its original condition. Instead of returning to the garden, eternal redemption comes to us in the imagery of a city. Revelation 21 describes a new Jerusalem, a well-ordered city that represents human flourishing and creativity in all its fullness: perfect relationship with our Creator, perfect freedom to work for the common good, and the perfectly governed human community. While the church is our foundational human community and authority on earth, the new heaven and new earth don’t have a place of worship because God dwells with His people. The redeemed earth will not have a church, but it will have a city. Our vocation to steward God’s creation does not end, but finds its redeemed expression in our work in a city.
Ironically, the passages most often referenced in support of political disengagement—such as Philippians 3:20, Hebrews 13:14, and Ephesians 2:19—tell us that our citizenship is in heaven, meaning that one element of our eternal identity is political affiliation with the coming kingdom of God. Instead of viewing this life, including our political participation during it, as simply biding our time until our true citizenship is fully realized, we should view our engagement in this age as a glimpse and a foretaste of that future. The work that we do now will be redeemed, not extinguished. Our current engagements anticipate our future engagements, transcending the limitations of earthly political work and providing opportunities for us to witness to a larger project of human flourishing. Our work in the here and now is nurturing our political imaginations for the life to come.
Taken from Liturgy of Politics by Kaitlyn Schiess. Copyright (c) 2020 by Kaitlyn Schiess. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Kaitlyn Schiess is a staff writer at Christ and Pop Culture. Her writing has also appeared at Christianity Today, Relevant, and Fathom Magazine. She lives in Dallas.