What’s the role of politics in church? How do we stay at the table (particularly as we go home to Thanksgiving this week) with people who might sharply disagree with us? Eric Knox, Danielle Mayfield, and I shared the pulpit last Sunday for this second week of our sermon series, where we’re processing this crisis moment in our nation and the voices of frustration, anger, and fear that are echoing in our homes, cities, and media, in the wake of the 2016 election.
Last week we focused on lament: acknowledging the deep divisions in our society, and crying out honestly together before God. This week we look at unity: how do we move forward together as the Church? Unity does not mean uniformity–we’re going to have a variety of opinions and perspectives. But how do we stay at the table together?
Big Mama & The Family Table
An opening observation: Jesus gathers a (politically) diverse group of disciples. For example, he calls both a Zealot and a tax-collector (Simon & Levi). These were polar opposites back in the day. Zealots were left-wing, anti-empire, who identified with the marginalized and wanted a revolution. Tax-collectors were right-wing, pro-Rome, collaborators with the system who wanted to maintain the status quo.
Jesus’ crew must have produced some interesting dinner conversations!
Jesus still calls a motley band today. Like Simon and Levi, many of us probably have some ideological “detox” to do in the process of following Jesus, and we also have insight to bring from our experience. And our biggest transformation just might come through staying at the table together.
Eric used the movie Soul Food, with its iconic image of an African American family meal around the dinner table, as a picture of unity amidst discord. People bring their drama, fights break out, discord and dissent are common–but everyone stays in it at the table together, because, well… family.
And ultimately, Big Mama steps in at some point to set everyone straight and establish the peace again.
“Jesus is Big Mama,” Eric reminds us, who ultimately comes to set his quarreling family straight.
Cheerleader or Lord?
Which means the first thing we need to do, as the Church with our politics, is look to Jesus in the head seat at the family table. This confronts our tendency to make Jesus our cheerleader, by which I mean:
Many are frustrated to have grown up with church voter guides that eerily represented only Republican talking points, as if to say Jesus endorses the political right.
And there’s often a reactive pendulum swing today (in progressive Portland at least) that bolts the other direction, as if to say Jesus is gung-ho for the political left.
But Jesus doesn’t fully fit in either camp, so some want to make him a-political: Just leave Jesus out of politics!
But none of these approaches work. The underlying problem with all three is this:
Jesus is not a cheerleader; he’s lord.
Jesus is not under either party; he’s king over both parties. And he hasn’t checked out of the party; he reigns over all the earth. We don’t bring our pre-existing platform to Jesus, to simply put a “God-stamp” on what we already believe. Rather, we submit our positions before God, asking how does he confront our pre-conceived agendas, and call us into radical obedience.
The Church’s prophetic cry is not “God bless America,” but rather “America bless God.” Eric reminds us of the scene in Joshua 5, when Joshua encounters a heavenly man with sword drawn on the threshold of Canaan, and asks “Are you for us or our enemies?” To which the man replies, “Neither, but as commander of the army of the Lord.” And “Joshua fell down and worshipped.”
Abraham Lincoln perhaps had this scene in mind when asked whether God was on the side of the Union, and famously responded:
Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.
We want to summon God onto our side; but God instead summons us onto his.
So the first proper political response of the Church is to recognize God as King–and worship.
Principles vs. Application
Okay, but once we’ve done that, how do we get along as Democrats and Republicans in the Church? I’m reminded of Augustine’s famous maxim:
In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
Christ calls us to unity on certain principles, I would suggest, but there is liberty in how we apply those principles. For example, Christ calls us to unity on principles such as caring for the poor and championing life from the womb-to-the-tomb, but when it comes to applying these principles politically, we need flexibility, to create space for conscience.
Because politics are complex.
All we need to do is start asking questions like: Are these principles better accomplished through big government or small government? Let’s take a quick look at the complexity that can arise, with an example from each side of the political spectrum.
“Caring for the poor,” for example, is often associated with the Democratic platform, expanding a broad social safety net. But working internationally, I’ve seen how big government is frequently one of the biggest obstacles to caring for the poor, how it’s often way more efficient and effective to throw fuel on the fire of local entrepreneurial initiatives, contextualized within specific communities.
Many believe a small federal government is more conducive to the long-term economic welfare of society. And those I encounter caring most radically, sacrificially, and generously for the poor (domestically and abroad), are frequently fiscally conservative (something the studies back up).
Interesting Sidenote: many assume white evangelicals have always been predominantly Republican, and African Americans Democrat–but the roles were historically reversed. Through much of the 20th century, African American loyalty was strongly with the Republican platform (as the party of Lincoln and emancipation; whereas Democrats’ earlier emphasis on states’ rights resisted the end of slavery). And white evangelicals led at the forefront of progressive causes like abolition, prison reform, labor reform, child labor reform, and women’s suffrage. As strange as it may sound today, white evangelicals led at the tip of the spear in the Democratic party. The reversal of these party loyalties is a more recent phenomenon, in the latter half of the twentieth century.
“Caring for the unborn,” to take an issue from the other side, is often considered a Republican issue. But some would argue expanding social services through the federal government (a Democratic platform) is the best way to reduce abortions. Can you disagree with a candidates’ ideological support for abortion, yet pragmatically think their policies might create the most practical reduction of abortions?
Bill Clinton was famous, for example, in working with evangelicals stating that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” crafting policies that arguably led to a greater reduction in abortion than the prior Republican administration. And abortion rates have fallen 12% under Obama’s presidency (though the reasons for this are contested). One of the tragedies of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, in my opinion, was her dismissive refusal to work with evangelicals at all on this front, seeking rather to expand abortion as a partisan element of her platform.
Interesting Sidenote: many assume the Religious Right formed in response to Roe v. Wade (where abortion was legalized). But historically, many leading evangelicals supported the Roe v. Wade decision at first, not because they were fans of abortion but because they believed in small government, and saw it as a victory for non-infringement on privacy rights. It was a conservative Supreme Court that gave the verdict, and the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, a Christianity Today editorial, and other key leaders vocally supported the decision.
What then catalyzed the forming of the Religious Right? Desegregation, and the IRS attempt to remove the tax-exempt status of schools like Bob Jones University that resisted desegregation. It wasn’t until six years later, through the influential work of Francis Schaeffer and others, alongside the unanticipated skyrocketing of abortions in the US, that the Religious Right used abortion to mobilize a broader mass movement. (Skye Jethani gives a fascinating summary of this history between 36:00 – 51:00 here).
To be clear, I’m not saying the arguments above on poverty or abortion are correct (and these are obviously only a small slice of many important issues). My point is simply this:
Within the Church, you have Republicans who care radically about poverty alleviation and are move involved in it on-the-ground than many Democrats. And you have Democrats who are passionate about being pro-life “from womb to the tomb,” and are caring on the front-lines as foster/adoptive parents for vulnerable children. We need space for freedom of conscience.
And wherever we land, as Augustine’s quote above reminds us, we’re called to have charity for one another. It does no good to reduce to sound bytes, such as Republicans are stingy racist haters, or Democrats are bleeding heart baby-killers. We should call each other to unity on the principles Christ calls us to, but liberty as we grapple with how to apply those principles in our political context.
We’ve strived at Imago Dei to be a bi-partisan community, where zealots and tax collectors can follow Jesus together, believing God wants to form us with and through one another.
Now, all that said, is there something specific God is calling us to in this political moment?
Standing With the Afraid
Jesus gives his Church another essential principle to be unified on, as he elevates the dignity of minorities and women as bearers of his image and objects of divine affection. Even if you found Trump’s character abhorrent but voted for him out of conscience on policy issues, you should nonetheless stand against the racism and misogyny in some of his divisive rhetoric, and some of the hateful actions that have broken out this week in the wake of his election.
There was a spike of more than 200 hate crimes in the few days following Trump’s election. These were just the nationally reported ones–I heard of multiple other incidences in our own city. Minorities in our church reached out to tell me they cried the night of the election and were afraid for their safety. Home community leaders told of multiple clashes in their neighborhoods, such as the Hispanic boy told, “When he builds that wall, we’re going to throw you over it.” Teachers shared incidents from their school, such as Diana, the high school girl from Iraq, who looked up from her desk with tears welling up and spilling over asked:
Why do they hate me? They don’t even know me.
Whatever one’s political position, now is a time to stand with the afraid. Danielle shared stories from the refugees she works with. The Somalian woman who said, “I couldn’t sleep at all last night, thinking about things Donald Trump has said about Muslims.” The children at her daughter’s multi-ethnic elementary school who comforted one another saying, “It’s going to be okay; we’re going to take care of each other.” The Sudanese man who, in despondent resignation, said, “I’ve survived one dictator; I’ll survive another.”
The point is not whether you share these sentiments. The point, as Danielle reminded us, is if you don’t know anyone who cried themselves to sleep the night of the election, you probably need to expand who’s at your dinner table.
And as we do that, a final thought . . .
Church as a Reconciled Community
Jesus calls us to stay at the table, to move toward each other in our differences rather than further apart. The Church is a reconciled community, this is at the heart of our DNA. As Paul puts it in Galatians 3:
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This doesn’t mean our differences go away, but that Christ is bigger than the chasms between us, and can bring us together in the power of his Spirit. What unites us is Jesus.
We take for granted how radical this is, but in the ancient world, Roman society was highly stratified and segregated. The scandal of the early church involved bringing together people from such radically different walks of life, as alternative communities amidst the empire, bound together in life with Jesus as colonies of his kingdom planted under the political powers of the world.
The first prophetic task of the Church is not to fix the world, but to be the Church. To stay at the table together. To embody the reconciliation that Christ has accomplished by walking with one another, speaking in truth and love, allowing him to form us–as tax collectors and zealots and everyone in between–together in his image for the glory of our King.