Should Christians Be Political?
By Daniel Van Oudenaren
For many people today, politics has become a dirty word. Politics is synonymous with power-seeking, showboating, bickering, fear-mongering, exaggeration, deception, and division.
And for sure, that is a part of the reality. For that reason, many Christians have fled from politics. They want nothing to do with it, they find little if anything redeeming in it, and they see no possibility of engaging in it without getting discouraged, embittered, or corrupted.
Others take the opposite approach. They decide that the showboating, bickering, and deception is an acceptable and even necessary part of what it means to engage faithfully in the political realm and ‘win.’ For these Christians, politics becomes a zero-sum game that’s all about defeating political enemies, seizing control of the government, and enacting moral laws and rules.
This brief essay seeks to establish the basic outlines of a political theology that charts a middle way, that allows Christians to engage faithfully in the political arena without being consumed by it and defined by it.
One starting point is this basic fact: We exist in relation to one another. We are not “sovereign citizens.” Whether we like it or not, we must relate to our neighbors, to our city, and to different layers of government. In this sense, every human being is a political creature.
Because politics is universal to the human experience, Scripture use political vocabulary to describe God: He is King, Prince, Judge, and Lord. Pretty much anyone, anywhere, and in any epoch can understand these terms to some extent.
The gospel proclamation itself is couched in political terms — “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk 1:15), as is the ancient formula for profession of the Christian faith — “Jesus is lord “ (1 Cor. 12:3).
The political vocabulary of Scripture suggests that God claims the allegiance of his followers in an explicitly political sense. To be clear, however, Scripture does not endorse a “theocratic” form of government, in the sense of religious clerics running a government.
Nor does it suggest that, because God has a political claim on our lives, all human authorities are illegitimate, whether or not they are Christians (Romans 13). While it is true that God is the only ultimate sovereign, it is also true that he has placed us in proximity to one another, in relation to one another, and commanded us to love our neighbors (Mk 12:31).
This is central to a political theology that embraces a middle way. It rejects, on the one hand, extreme libertarianism that asserts the sovereign individual — and on the other hand, extreme statism that asserts a sovereign idea (e.g., the Nazi Volk, the Soviet Proletariat, Progress, Science, Tradition, etc).
Ideas are not governments. No matter how compelling, no idea in itself can be legitimately sovereign. Some of the worst rulers in history have claimed to rule in the name of some exalted idea, sacrificing their subjects to some supposedly high ideal.
Legitimate rulers, by contrast, exercise power concretely in relation to their neighbors. They concern themselves with the actual welfare of their citizens, with the real impacts of their policies and actions, with the need to balance liberties and the common good.
‘Seek the Welfare of the City’
The word ‘politics’ come from the Greek polis, meaning city. At root, politics is about the affairs of the town, neighborhood, or city. Politics is the process by which neighbors agree where the kids’ bus stop should be located. It’s the decision to install speed bumps on a residential road. It’s the parent-teacher meeting where the curriculum is discussed.
Scripture provides an explicit warrant for Christians to engage in politics at this most basic level: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7).
Of course, there are higher levels of politics too: politics of the state, the nation, and the world. Politics at these levels often involves a higher degree of abstraction. In our national politics, for instance, we use words like ‘Progressive’ or ‘Conservative’ to explain political ideologies or affiliations. In foreign policy, too, there is a rich abstract political vocabulary.
The most fanatical devotees of abstract political ideas are what we might call “ideologues” or “idealists.” For idealists, the ideal is elevated to greater importance than the reality in which it is applied. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains idealism this way: “The ethical task is conceived as consisting in the realization of certain definite principles, quite irrespectively of their relation to life.”
Like the ancient Gnostic or Platonist, the idealist dreams of a higher reality free from this messy, confused, and limiting world. Ultimately, he will always fall short, because even if he is charismatic, powerful, and ingenious, he will never be able to bend reality to his ideal. “Ideologies vent their fury on man and then leave him as a bad dream leaves the waking dreamer,” wrote Bonhoeffer, who was himself the victim of Nazi ideology. “The memory of them is bitter.”
What makes Christianity different from idealism — from ideology of any kind — is that Christ is not an ideal. According to the Scriptures and virtually all of the Christian traditions, Christ is an Incarnational God. What this means is that he is bodily, relational, and personal — not an ideal, not a representation, but a person.
Jesus declares himself the head of a kingdom that he describes in earthy, even tactile terms. He speaks of the kingdom as a wedding feast, a great banquet, a seed, a tree, a batch of dough. “To what should I compare the kingdom of God?” he says. “It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Lk 13:20–21).
This kingdom, in other words, is not an ideal above reality, but rather something that pervades reality, grows into it, leavens it.
To be sure, Jesus says that his kingdom “is not of this world” and “does not have its origin here” (HCSB, Jn 18:26), but also that it is already here, at least incipiently: “The kingdom of God is among you” (Lk 17:21).
Put another way, Christ plants the flag. He declares to the world that it cannot be rid of God.
The Christian, therefore, is bound to an obligation more powerful than any political idealism: the call of Christ on his life. He cannot serve an abstraction — not wholeheartedly, in any case. He already serves Christ, the concrete center of all reality, the ground of reality itself. If taken seriously, this is what inoculates the believer against emotionalism, idealism, and messianism in politics.
Engagement with the World
To be clear, Christians are certainly free to engage with worldly ideas — just not in the same manner as secular idealists. While the Christian and the secular idealist both recognize that ideas are important, the secular idealist is able to throw himself wholly into service to an idea. He is free even to sacrifice himself to the idea. This may appear noble, but it isn’t Christian; Jesus did not give up his life for an idea, He gave it up for mankind itself.
So what’s the practical takeaway? How should Christians engage politically?
Well, in the day-to-day of our political lives, Christians should “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29:7) in which they are placed — whether or not the leaders of their government are Christians. They should be the kind of citizens who praise, encourage, uplift, and help on the one hand (when it is called for), while challenging, critiquing, or even resisting on the other hand (when called for).
Like a Nathan to a David or a Daniel to a Cyrus, Christians should strive to be loyal, if critical, citizens. While they will not bow to the gods of this world, Christians should seek its flourishing, and look to the reign of the one to come.
This essay is part of an occasional series of articles offering perspectives on the Christian faith. Originally published at honestaustin.com.