It is said that the two subjects people should avoid in polite conversation are religion and politics. Within Christianity there is often an understandable desire to transcend the politics of the day: politics, by the very nature of the craft, involves compromise and gets very dirty in deal making; furthermore, no political platform fully embodies God’s purposes in Christ, and politicians invariably fall short of upholding what God would have upheld in Christ in every respect.
Political transcendentalism thus involves the intention to get beyond or rise above the political fray. The reasoning behind politically transcendent postures varies considerably. Some strive for political transcendence from a “pox on all your houses” posture, frustrated by the partisan climate and the ugliness of the world of political compromise and thus yearning for a more ideal or “pure” form of politics. Others focus on the portrayal of the nation-state as the beast in Revelation 13:1-18 as inspired by Daniel 7:1-12: they strive for political transcendentalism based on a firm commitment to the lordship of Jesus the Christ in His Kingdom and presume the relationship with the nation-state must always be adversarial. Still others challenge the presumption of the efficacy of political processes and behaviors, viewing it all as vanity and a striving after wind; the lack of faith in politics leads such people to political transcendentalism.
We can sympathize with many or even all of these impulses toward political transcendentalism. Politics remains a dirty business, awash in money and rife with special interests; one rightly wonders if any among the people of God could participate in politics at a high level and maintain their faithfulness before God. The political process almost universally disappoints: even if a group of people get what they want, at what cost was it obtained, and for how long will it last before the laws are changed again? John does envision powerful nation-states in terms of beasts, and the illustration “works” because the same tendencies toward arrogance and oppression manifest in Babylon could be seen in Rome and has been visible ever since in every nation-state that has aspired to be like Rome. Even the United States can become an adversary to the Kingdom of God in Christ when it upholds injustice and oppression and co-opts many images of the faith to rationalize and support itself. Furthermore, that which politicians give, politicians can take away: politics is one of those things in the world that proves to be vain and a striving after wind, generating a lot of interest, making some people a lot of money, and all to what end? Brother tears brother apart; political parties and processes will never be satisfied. We can therefore fully understand the desire to dispense with all of it, flee from such a “Babylon,” and declare ourselves above it all, renouncing various forms of political participation.
Jesus expects Christians to respect earthly authorities, to pay their taxes, and to pray for all people, especially those in authority, so Christians can persevere in a quiet and peaceful life with all dignity (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-3, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Nowhere does Christ command the Christian to vote or to dedicate or devote themselves to politics and political processes. Therefore, a Christian can renounce many aspects of political participation and still glorify and honor God.
Nevertheless, political transcendentalism in all of its motivations presents many dangers for Christians. While John indeed presents Rome in terms of the beast and Babylon the whore (cf. Revelation 13:1-18:24), Paul set forth how God expected earthly authorities, including Roman authorities, to uphold what was good and punish what was wrong (Romans 13:1-4); he would make appeal to Roman authorities to uphold such justice and entrusted himself to their care (cf. Acts 21:27-28:20). As Christians we must expect to have an adversarial relationship with the nation-state at times on account of our primary loyalty to the ways of Jesus in His Kingdom (cf. John 16:32-33, Acts 5:29); nevertheless, we have no ground upon which to assume the relationship will be purely adversarial. We may be exiles and sojourners for the Kingdom according to 1 Peter 1:17, 2:11-12, but we also do well to seek the welfare of the place in which we find ourselves thus “exiled” (cf. Jeremiah 29:1-9, Matthew 5:33-48, Romans 12:14-21). We must go about doing good for those around us, and to visit widows and orphans in their distress (Galatians 6:10, James 1:27): at some point in seeking to do good for people we will recognize the systemic nature of many of the challenges of the poor and afflicted, and systemic challenges require systemic solutions, demanding some level of political advocacy. It is hard to imagine Christians as hungering and thirsting for righteousness and justice without ever attempting to exhort authorities to uphold what is good and punish what is evil wherever that good or evil might be found (Matthew 5:6): such exhortation is “moral” and “spiritual” but also, by necessity, is “political,” even if not partisan. We have good reason to despair regarding the permanence or perfection of political change, but have we fully grappled with how it was the coercive force of the nation-state along with the powerful stand in faith and conviction by civil rights advocates that transformed attitudes regarding white supremacy and the social standing of black people in the middle of the twentieth century, even though such a message was in the Gospel the whole time and neglected by many?
Yet the greatest danger in political transcendentalism is the presumption of transcendence. Can we truly transcend the world of the political? Even if we renounce participation in politics, we are likely to have views and opinions regarding how the state and its people ought to function. For generations Christians have been tempted to see themselves as greater or better than others based on what they have learned in God in Christ; one can imagine the prayer, “Lord, thank you that I am not like these wretched political partisans; I understand the Kingdom cannot come by means of these, and I keep myself away from such compromises of your purposes” (cf. Luke 18:9-14). We cannot imagine God is glorified in such arrogance; we must remember that we are no better or more or less transcendent than anyone else (Romans 3:23). In Western cultures transcendence tends to have a Gnostic tinge: a yearning for the pure ideal and rejection of what is real in disillusion and despair. We must remember Jesus came into the world, took on flesh, and dwelt among us in our filth and messiness, and loved and cared for us in that condition (cf. John 1:1, 14, Philippians 2:5-11); we must strive to remain unstained from the world but cannot presume to be aloof from those in the world who suffer and are in need. Furthermore, a posture of political transcendence is made easier by privilege: it is not hard to presume to be above the fray when the system generally works to your advantage, and your life is not significantly affected whether one group or another has power. It is quite another when one’s integrity or matters of life or death is at stake. Even if we find ourselves with advantage in society, perhaps we should leverage our advantage to benefit others, and thus to participate politically to some degree to assist others even if it does not likewise benefit us?
Political participation can all too easily devolve into partisan factionalism and/or idolatry; we do well to consider the critique of political transcendentalism regarding participation in the political realm. And yet the posture of political transcendentalism ought to be critiqued itself in light of what God has accomplished in Jesus. Political participation should not be everything, nor should it infringe upon the work of God in Christ; nevertheless, there ought to be a place for Christians to bring the lordship of Jesus to bear on the matters that relate to the city, the state, and the people, and to embody Jesus in their political discourse and posture to a lost and dying world. May we glorify God in Christ in all things so as to obtain the resurrection of life in His Kingdom!
Ethan R. Longhenry