In 2010, on the basis of various events and their influence on the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus, I wrote “Recantation of Political Participation“, establishing a desire to no longer participate in the politics of the United States of America.
My reconsideration of that article and that posture is not rooted in events that have transpired since: if anything, the past ten years have only reinforced the primary difficulty adumbrated in the article. The witness of the Kingdom has not been enhanced by Christian participation in political matters; we have now seen the rise of the Trump phenomenon and the justification and rationalization thereof by those who would profess Jesus. In the eyes of many Christianity is conflated with the white nationalism promoted by Trump. Concern regarding the compromise of the witness of the faith has therefore only increased over the past decade.
Likewise, the demonization of the Political Other has continued apace. Appeals to Ephesians 6:12, the recognition the Political Other is not the enemy, falls on deaf ears. Far too many allow themselves to be shaped more by the partisan media they imbibe than what God has made known in Jesus. Many Christians have become alienated from fellow Christians because of these behaviors and have mightily struggled in their faith, wondering how they can remain in association with people who would demonize others in this way. Not a few Christians feel greater kinship with many in the world or in other religious organizations than with those with whom they ought to share the most precious bond of faith in Christ. Thus, many of the questions established in the previous article remain as live and relevant as ever.
My reconsideration, therefore, has nothing to do with recent events; it is based in changes and developments in my own understanding.
I have come to understand how the attempt to maintain a transcendental, disconnected posture toward the body politic reeks of Gnosticism. As Westerners we are always tempted to flee to a kind of Gnosticism, to become so despondent with the mess of reality that we want to surround ourselves in the warm glow of the ideal. Keeping one’s eyes set on a good and healthy goal is important; yet the Incarnation of Jesus the Christ ought to transform our thinking to maintain focus on what is real. Jesus entered our broken, sinful, and messy realm, and fully participated in life in the mess (Philippians 2:5-11); throughout His life He served and strengthened the poor and marginalized, and exhorted His followers to do the same (e.g. Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus did not love “humanity” in some abstract notion; He loved actual, concrete people in all of their problems and difficulties (cf. John 13:1-4). Jesus called upon His followers to love one another as He has loved us (John 13:31-35).
Loving people requires us to “get our hands dirty” and be immersed in their lives. For those who are poor and marginalized it will become apparent quickly that to be involved in their lives demands to be involved in their struggle against the oppression and injustices they face. To this end Christian charity demands advocacy and the willingness to leverage the resources one has to benefit others. And thus I have come to understand that the attempt to maintain a transcendental, disconnected posture toward the body politic embodies its own form of privilege and the unwillingness to use that privilege to benefit others. When the powers and principalities have so rendered all things to work for people like me, the political authorities in power and what they do will most likely not effect my life terribly much. Thus I can deceive myself into thinking that their behaviors will not change a lot, and can assume that would be true for others. Yet for those who do not share in that privilege, those against whom the powers and principalities have conspired to oppress, political changes may mean much more. Thus we do well to think about more than just ourselves when it comes to politics and political participation; we must think about how our advocacy might provide a benefit to others.
In my political moderation I have been especially challenged by Martin Luther King Junior’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. As much as I would like to think I would not have been the “white moderate” to whom and about whom he wrote, I see the historical legacy of churches of Christ of that era, and must confess to the strong temptation to toe the moderate line, that even if I sympathized with the plight of black people, I would add my voice to the chorus of “not through agitation.” Almost everyone confesses that the Civil Rights Movement has led to benefits to society and recognizes the white supremacy manifest in the 1950s and before was wrong and immoral. For all the pious talk about how it is the Gospel that changes lives, the Gospel was theoretically preached throughout America at the time, and many of those who preached it were confessed white supremacists. It would not be the Gospel, but the effects of the Civil Rights Movement and the coercive force of the nation-state which led to Christians “re-discovering” the truth that God has made all humanity from one, and in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, and thus none are intrinsically superior to any other (Acts 17:26, Galatians 3:28). Let none be deceived: the Gospel did not fail; Christians failed the Gospel and was rebuked by the world. A lot of the political transcendentalist posture and political disinterest prevalent in the church and Evangelicalism writ large can be historically traced to the attempt to maintain the cognitive dissonance between upholding the Christian faith on Sunday and the practice of first slavery and then the Jim Crow segregation system the rest of the time.
In Matthew 5:38-42 Jesus gave patterns for nonviolently and creatively exposing and humiliating the powers that be as they exploit and oppress. Justice is a much more prevalent theme in the New Testament than has often been recognized; the Greek dikaiosune, most often translated “righteousness,” carries the themes of both “righteousness” and “justice,” a constant pairing in Hebrew (tzedaqa and mishpat). When we read through New Testament passages using dikaiosune and read them as “justice/righteousness,” the continued importance of being a people who uphold justice becomes evident.
Jeremiah exhorted the Jewish exiles in Babylon to seek the welfare of their community, even though they lived in the middle of the oppressor Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7). In 1 Peter the Apostle Peter sets forth a practical guide of how to live faithfully as Christians in this light: he wrote the letter speaking of the Christians of Asia Minor as Israel in Babylonian exile (cf. 1 Peter 1:1, 5:13). He exhorted them to see themselves as sojourners and exiles, reminding them they would not find comfort a true home in the midst of their own people (1 Peter 1:17, 2:11). And yet they were to do good for those around them, even if those people sought their harm, entrusting themselves to a faithful Creator who would judge justly, just as Jesus did (1 Peter 2:18-25, 4:12-19).
Thus, as Christians, we ought to subject ourselves to civil authority and honor rulers whether just or unjust (1 Peter 2:11-17). Yet we do well to use our voice to exhort that civil authority to reward good behavior and punish evil behavior wherever it is found so that civil authority can honor God who empowered them (Romans 13:1-7). We should pray for authorities and all people that we might live quiet lives in dignity and godliness and that all may come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-4). We must never fall prey to the idolatry of the nation-state, and must always privilege the Kingdom of God (John 18:36, Philippians 3:20-21); and yet we ought to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and bring the Lordship of Jesus to bear in our relationships, our neighborhoods, our communities, our nation-states, and in the world (Matthew 6:10, Matthew 28:18).
To this end I must return to political participation, cognizant of all the lessons learned in the past, still very much concerned about the influence of politics and the idolatry of the nation-state on the witness of the Kingdom of God, and yet determined to uphold the Gospel of Christ and its mandate to love my neighbor as myself and seek his welfare, resisting the powers and principalities over this present darkness in order to bring the Lordship of Jesus to bear on the world. This involves political discourse in light of Kingdom values and priorities; it involves voting for those who will most consistently uphold justice and correct oppression; it demands speaking up and out for those who do not have the privilege of being heard. At the very least it demands that I do not advocate for oppression and resist the correction of injustice on account of fear of personal loss or discomfort. If I enjoy my standing and my position by the grace of God, I must leverage those resources to the benefit of others if I would glorify God in Christ and love others as He has loved me. May we all pursue justice, denounce injustice, seek to correct oppression, and glorify God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry