“My opponent is a #^&@)*g. You know he’s a #^&@)*g because here’s a picture of him frowning with his finger near his nose. (Cue the pleasant music) Here’s a picture of me smiling with my family and our dogs. I will be good for you, and I will be good for your wallet. You can tell I am a true patriot. I am your non-#^&@)*g candidate, and I approved this message. (Smile)”
Welcome to the predominant success formula on the American political landscape. To get elected candidates discredit their opponent—by striking fear in voters that there is something really wrong with the other guy. Political handlers believe that American voters have short attention spans. There isn’t enough time in a 30-second spot to address substantive issues or ideas—but we can absorb short, memorable sound bites that leave horribly unfavorable impressions of the opponent.
After being bombarded with political rhetoric and campaign commercials in the month leading up to the midterm elections, I was hoping the election results would bring an end, at least for now, to this ugly parade of mudslinging.
But I received a troubling email this week. Not from a political candidate who caved in to his handlers, but from a seminary that, at the very least, has an increasing appetite to engage in political issues and debates.
So?! What’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t seminaries be engaged in the democratic process? After all, the right to free speech is protected in our constitution. The church is under increasing attacks from political figures and the culture in general. Shouldn’t seminaries prepare their graduates to engage and challenge the culture? Shouldn’t Christians be thermostats instead of thermometers? Why would anyone object to Christians being actively engaged in political processes? Some of these candidates are sincere Christians who truly want to serve their Lord and their country.
At the risk of disappointing family, friends and Veracity readers, there is something wrong with mixing politics and political agendas with the Christian faith.
Please hear me out. There are times when it is right—even necessary—to mix Christian values with politics. Consider the political activities of William Wilberforce (fighting slavery), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (fighting Nazism), or Martin Luther King, Jr. (fighting racism). These are three strong examples of when Christian activism was necessary and made an impact on our world.
But let’s be honest—it’s a long way from Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer and King, Jr. to the political candidates of the 21st century. So, how willing should we be to lock arms as Christians with political candidates or political agendas? Is that necessarily a problem?
The problem is that one institution (politics) is fueled by popular opinion, and the other (Christianity) is beyond popular opinion. Democratic politics is practiced successfully by appealing to the widest swath of voters, while negotiating compromises to build plurality positions. The objective in politics is to make a better world for ‘us’. The means are often ugly and combative. Christianity, on the other hand, is successfully practiced by appealing to God, who isn’t favorably impressed or swayed by popular opinion. The objective in Christianity is to develop a right relationship with God, by representing Him well and serving others.
An Argument from Silence
When we bring Jesus to the political arena, we risk equating our faith with our politics. The Christian faith compels us to maintain a certain integrity—by sharing God where it matters most, not necessarily in politics for political gain.
Jesus never attacked a government (although He certainly did attack religious leadership), and nowhere did He model that His followers should engage in any political debate, issue or cause. Jesus launched the ultimate revolution. He did call upon His followers to fight—not against individuals or governments—but against separation from God, darkness, evil and man’s own inhumanity to man. And what weapons did He prefer? Kindness, compassion, self-sacrifice, empathy and love. In fact, when confronted by Pontius Pilate at His trial, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36, ESV). When the apostle Peter drew his sword to defend Jesus in Gethsemane, Jesus said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53, ESV). Jesus was fighting a different kind of war, for something far more important than political gain. And He never promised that anything would be better in this world—”In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV84).
In the 1st century somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of the entire population of the Roman empire was enslaved. The Romans occupied Palestine and Jerusalem. Talk about political causes you could sink your teeth into! In fact, Jews expected their Messiah to be a king who would overthrow the Roman occupiers. So if Jesus wanted to gain the respect of the chosen people, all He would have had to do was take on the Roman government. But when Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:7, Luke 20:25, NIV84), we see the ultimate example of a big thinker. If they were looking for a leader to free the slaves, Jesus was way ahead of them—“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mathew 20:25b-28, NIV84). In John 8:34-36 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.“
The apostle Paul got it. Paul had a lot to say about slavery, particularly as he addressed the idea that we are all one in Christ. His letter asking a slave owner to restore a runaway slave as a brother in Christ is as poignant as his instructions to slaves and masters in Ephesians 6:9. Paul ends these instructions by noting that God is everyone’s master in Heaven. There’s that big-picture idea again.
In logic, this type of argument is termed an “argument from silence.” Can we infer from Jesus’ own words and deeds, and apostolic writings, that the Christian faith is dealing with more important matters than politics and political ideas? Is there a principle to be applied in our own lives about our approach to politics?
Ravi Zacharias on Christianity and Politics
Ravi Zacharias recently wrote an eloquent post about Christianity and politics.
“Only Christianity is strong enough to preserve our freedom and our dignity. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ gives us the enormous privilege of sacred freedom without imposing faith on anyone. Those who mock this faith will find themselves before long under the oppression of an ideological domination that uses religion to gain political and cultural dominance and will not tolerate the mocking of their beliefs without cruel responses.
“History is replete with examples that politics never has had and never will have the answers to ensuring the perpetuity of a nation and the freedom and dignity of our souls. From the feudal warlords of ancient Mesopotamia to the divine status of kings in Babylon and Persia, from the democratic and republican ideas of Greece to the empire building of Rome, from the theocracies of Islam and the state church of Europe to flirtation with the idea of freedom without responsibility in postmodern America and the materialism of Communism—what has remained? A world in turmoil.
“Political theories come and go. Nations and empires rise and fall. Civilizations wax and wane. For this very reason, Jesus resisted any efforts to make himself an earthly king. The allegiance he wants is that of the heart, for the ultimate universal battle is that of the will against God. In Him alone are we truly made free.”
Ravi Zacharias, Think Again–Freedom and Dignity
Back to Lon Solomon‘s litmus test. Back to Jesus and the apostle Paul, and bring it through Ravi Zacharias. What would I say to the seminary president who introduces a politician at a national Christian apologetics conference, and who has specific ideas about which political parties have made certain mistakes, and which legislative bills should be passed and which should be defeated?
Simply this. Your faith is of far more consequence than your political views, and (with all due respect) your Savior deserves better treatment than your Congressman.
You have a right to your political opinions, and you have a right to speak out. In matters of highest import I sincerely hope you will. But when you take up one politician or political cause and promote them with your faith, you put Jesus in a position of lower integrity than He deserves, and you invite questions about your judgment and priorities. Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
So, promote the Gospel and promote Jesus Christ with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. Let your efforts affect the political system most importantly through the votes of the citizens that you counsel and teach. Prepare them to engage this world and our culture, but more importantly prepare them for the next. Prepare them to recognize the shortcomings in a political system that succeeds by following formulas built on disdain for people who think differently than we do.
As Ravi Zacharias wrote, “History is replete with examples that politics never has had and never will have the answers to ensuring the perpetuity of a nation and the freedom and dignity of our souls.” Christianity should remain above politics.
Relevant Magazine (yes, Relevant Magazine has fresh, insightful material) published a piece by contributing author Brian Roberts entitled 7 Things Christians Need to Remember About Politics that we would all do well to heed.