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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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