Archive for October, 2012

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The Gospel and Political Conversations

10/19/2012

These days I typically refrain from engaging in political conversations. This is because, in the past, those discussions have felt like the other party and I were speaking different languages. The irony is that I do not think the differences are fundamentally political. (I am using the word “political” in its truest sense. I do not mean partisan politics. I am referring to the way societies function and organize themselves, along with how they engage the wider world.) The trouble is not due to partisan allegiances or varying opinions about the role of government. The root of the problem, specifically in conversations within the church, is theological.

The issue, at least in my experience, stems from differing conceptions of the gospel. I would argue, and this trend is changing slightly, that most people think of the gospel as primarily about how Jesus’ death secures our standing after we die. The core of the gospel is that those who believe in Jesus will be saved and go to heaven. In other words, the most fundamental aspect of the Christian faith deals with what happens after you die. This is first order stuff; everything else, including politics, is secondary. And if that is what one believes about the gospel, then it is logical and consistent to be consumed with getting people into heaven and to not be so concerned about the things of this world. But, this is exactly why I am puzzled. I hear and see lots of people who hold this view of the gospel while also being extremely passionate (dare I say, dogmatic) about their “Christian” stances on politics. They are free to do this, but I am confused because there is no clear connection between their beliefs about the gospel and their political views. (This disconnect has its roots in, among other things, the influence of Luther’s theology and Enlightenment philosophy, but that is for another day.) Politics are about the here and now and the gospel is apparently about the afterlife, so how could the gospel be the primary influencer of one’s political views?

Therefore, it stands to reason, that it is other priorities, aims, and desires that inform people’s political positions. I am not saying that as an indictment. I am trying to argue that it is necessary and inevitable when viewing the gospel in this way. How can the gospel shape one’s political imagination when the gospel seems to focus on heaven more than earth? People are obviously doing their best to align their positions with their faith, but, when push comes to shove, something else (i.e., patriotic fervor, ideology, self-interest, etc.) shapes their engagement. For example, “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” have little to say about one’s views on international relations. It is often said that this is because those ideas are “not practical” for nations. I agree. If one’s aim is the security and prosperity of a particular nation, then it is impractical. But, why should that be one’s aim?

On the other hand, a gospel that is about the kingdom of God coming on earth through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection enables and encourages a robust political imagination. The good news of Jesus is that he is Lord and, through the power of the Spirit, God’s people join him in renewing creation when they trust and follow his ways. This view of the gospel obviously connects to one’s engagement in the political structures of the world for its central claim is that Jesus is Lord—not Caesar, nor anyone else. Therefore, all of Jesus’ life and teachings become the primary catalyst for one’s political imagination. If someone believes that the enemy-loving ethic of Jesus is the way to renew creation, then her political positions will promote peacemaking and reconciliation. If someone believes that the reign of God is manifest when a person with two cloaks shares one with the person who has none, then his political stance will be to promote economic justice for all human beings, not just for his own people. So, “turning the other cheek” might be impractical when your aim is the security of a nation. But, when your aim is the kingdom of God coming on earth, it might be the most practical thing to do.

The question then becomes how our political efforts and positions can be avenues through which the kingdom of God comes more fully. At times it might mean aligning ourselves with a particular party’s stance on a policy or issue. It could mean we choose to distance ourselves from the present political structures. And other times it means standing in stark opposition and protest to the political forces surrounding us. This calls for lots of prayer and wisdom. But, regardless, it always means that the church seeks to live out kingdom politics for herself despite what else is happening around her.

I do not think that sharing this view of the gospel will produce consensus and agreement in future conversations. I actually would hope not. The disagreements could produce new and creative ways to engage the pertinent issue. However, I do think this theological shift will help us to at least speak the same language while also reconnecting the aim of the gospel with the aim of our political engagement.

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My Sister and My Son

10/13/2012

On October 10th, 41 years ago, my sister Jennifer was born. On October 10th, 41 years ago, she passed away. My family has never been the same.

To be honest, throughout my years, October 10th has come and gone without too much fuss. I’ve never known how I’m supposed to feel about the loss of a sibling I never had the privilege to play board games against, or exchange Christmas presents with, or get tickled by, or fall asleep next to on road trips. There are times when I have tried to imagine what life would have been like with her around, but it’s hard to get my head around. I do have a feeling we would have been kindred spirits. And it does sadden me to think of what could have been. But, the significance of October 10th mostly seems surreal, and my feelings and emotions remain vague and disheveled.

However, despite my own confusion, I have always been keenly aware how, as a family, the fog of loss and pain thickens around the 10th of October. Even when the date passed without being spoken of, we all knew how the tragedy of losing our family’s firstborn forever shaped who we are. While I personally have a sense of temporal and emotional distance from the event which that date marks, I have experienced the pain of watching my mother and father suffer with the deep loss of which only parents can know. And thus, October 10th has always been a day for mourning, for grief, for lament, for “why?”–that is, until a year ago today.

Dax Arthur Reese was born on October 10th, and we celebrated his 1-year old birthday today. It was a day of great joy and thanksgiving. I have smiled all day thinking about the fun we have had during this past year. And I have also been thinking how the feelings associated with this date have forever changed. In a sense, October 10th has been redeemed in my family’s history. I don’t mean that the loss of my sister has somehow been negated. The pain is still around. The void is still felt. But, tragedy does not have a definitive claim on this day. The celebration of Dax’s life reminds me that death does not have the final word. We will never forget what was lost on this date, but we also now praise God for what was found. We thank God that October 10th has been redeemed for our family. We can thank God because we believe that, on THAT day, Jennifer and Dax will celebrate together. And what a party it will be.