POLITICAL QUESTIONS—IS THERE HOPE?
Liar vs. Lecher. That could well be what the marquee reads out front of today’s political arena. The followers of each engage in fierce fighting for their contender—“fanatical” seems apt to me as a normative, rather than extreme, descriptor. In one corner, just as some alleged lies fade into the past a new spate of emails comes to light. Sadly, it might be that deals were discussed, quid pro quo in nature, that stretches her credibility beyond the breaking point for many. In the other corner, just as the lechery stands fully exposed more professed victims come forward. Sadly, in the most recent cases the alleged lecher responds in ways that themselves seem dismissive, abusive and cluelessly aggravating. More sadly, professing Christians who support him dismiss his deeds with shockingly cheap grace in one breath and then rail against the same misdeeds committed by the spouse of his opponent. On both sides, we see the practice of defense by attack of the other. And both sides seem not to consider that the means one uses often invalidate the noblest of ends. Christians on both sides know better. If ends in themselves can justify the means, then Jesus was a fool and should have jumped from the Temple pinnacle. Liar vs. Lecher offers bawdy entertainment and C-rated drama, but no hope.
But hope remains for earnest and daring followers of Jesus. In fact, hope remains precisely because the dynamics now playing out in this electoral carnival show seem so dark. Is there hope? Yes or, at least, there can be!
Hope will flow from an excellent opportunity for Jesus-followers to reaffirm that:
Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there– the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself, (Phil. 3:20-21 CEB).
Hope stems only from a proper reading of Paul’s affirmation, however. He is not contending that we have two citizenships or dual citizenship, though this is a common understanding. Of course, there is a sense in which this is true, at least for people with papers. But here is the huge problem: often we say we are citizens of two worlds; then we say, our first priority is to the kingdom of God; and then we move or shift between the two realms as suits us and our own, according to assumptions and priorities we never really examine. We assume or we are told that in certain areas we are citizens of heaven but in others we are citizens of an earthly realm.
But it is important to note carefully what Paul actually says. Two points are especially critical. First, Paul was himself a citizen of the Roman Empire, but he says “our citizenship” (singular) is “in heaven.” Either he is asserting that we have only one, or ultimately only one (of how many ever we have) truly matters—and so much so that we speak as though it is the only one. Second, Paul says that we are citizens of a realm that already exists and that is coming to us in the re-appearing of the Savior, the Lord Jesus; who, when he comes, will do certain things in the world (make all things subject) and in us (transform our bodies to be like his). So, the ultimate realm to which we belong and that claims us does so already, and already now governs who we are, how we live, and awaits a coming fullness when Jesus returns.
A huge problem Jesus-followers have in our broken political systems is when they understand their citizenship in heaven to signal a hope to go there someday while they act like it at least sometimes now. But then, to be honest and real they think, they also belong to another government, and so must do whatever they do according to that belonging. Usually the latter totally trumps the former, except in relation to just a few clearly “spiritual” matters, such as sex, gambling, abortion, and the like. When it comes to the other things, however, they default to the “government-not-of-heaven” to determine what to do, or not. This is a huge problem, first, because it is certainly not what Paul is saying. It is a huge problem, second, because it grants to the world’s governments and systems functional authority over much of life. It is huge, third, because most do not even know this is happening.
Paul asserts only one government forms his identity, claims his ultimate allegiance, and decisively shapes his everyday experience of life. By the way, this tracks with Jesus’ primary proclamation, “The Kingdom is dawning,” and his initial, primary invitation, “repent—that is, turn from all other ways to this way I am revealing and teaching.” Just as there is but one God, so for followers of Jesus there is but one government.
So, how does that offer hope? Especially since, when the verbal dust settles, most of us also have at least another government to which we do belong and which lays some claim upon us. What of that government? I suggest that we must view that government as gift or woe; or maybe as woe and gift; or just woe or just gift depending on the circumstances. Taken as a whole, our scriptures make clear that “government” as such is ordained by God, that specific expressions of government are all at least allowed by God, and that governments in all their expressions are accountable to God. Many scriptures could elaborate, but recall what Paul says about the prevailing political realities of his own day (see Romans 13). The authorities are creations of God and God has expectations for them relating to “good” and “evil.” To whatever extent a government is good and godly, it is experienced as a gift. And to whatever it is not, it will be experienced as woe, or worse.
The question then becomes what do disciples of Jesus do with their gifts? How do disciples of Jesus respond to their and the world’s woes? More specifically, how then should followers of Jesus respond to the “gift” of government and to the woe of the world and people under their government? Volumes could be written in answer to both questions. But if we will seriously consider the questions, I believe renewed hope awaits us. How?
First, we will cease and desist in believing that the government can save us. In the case of the U.S. we will debunk the myth that there ever was an expression of the U.S. that ever did function in saving ways. It never happened, ever. It never could. In fact, the government itself needs saving, along with the rest of creation. Because, as Jesus taught, salvation itself is impossible, but with God there is hope even for the impossible. With God! Not the government. We do not expect salvation to come from any other than God, and the always good government of God. Again, this is precisely what Jesus actually proclaimed and taught.
Second, once we cease and desist “salvation by government,” we could recognize more clearly and reclaim more consistently what Jesus actually calls his followers to do, precisely in the middle of the bitterly contested arena where Liar vs. Lecher is being played out. We could do so by praying and practicing our way into the alternate, holy and truly saving ways of Jesus’ communities. That is precisely what happened in the first century, and what was going on when Paul reminded his friends in Philippi that we hail from, reflect the values and customs of, and enjoy the privileges and hopes ultimately of but one government.
Third, hope will rise from this in the 21st century just as it did in the first. And it will do so in ways that are powerfully and compellingly attractive and transforming for people who feel helpless and hopeless about the way things are. Let me suggest four ways this happened once and could again.
Among the earliest followers of Jesus, the poor and vulnerable received care that dignified them and saved their lives then and eternally. Among the Spirit-filled there was such generosity that no needy persons in their fellowship them went without care. You can read such a report in Acts 4:32-35. Think about what might happen if pockets of people mirrored the generosity of their God such that the needy and poor received care.
Among the earliest followers of Jesus, racial and tribal animosity and bias came into the light that exposed them as evil and deadly, and led them to the One who tore the walls down and offers the peace that only poets and children had previously imagined.
Among the earliest followers of Jesus, anger, rage, violence and vengeance were disarmed, stripped naked, and exposed for the weak and ineffectual strategies and responses they are. No empire exerted more power and influence in the known world than first century Rome, until followers of “the way” scattered here and there, aligning with another King. Then, temples toppled, magic books burned, empires collapsed, while the poor were helped, slaves were set free, women were empowered, schools founded, hospitals established, the world explored in scientifically methodical ways, and the list goes on. Human wrath and arrogance fueling conquest, command and control bred unending cycles of woe. Followers of another way humbly birthed hope of a world made new.
Jesus reaffirmed the scripture’s assurance that the gentle would inherit the world. Two millennia later most people know Jesus and some of his followers, but only scholars of history know what empire followed the one after the one that succeeded Rome. So, in climates of fear, anger, and vengeance, when the blustering or calmly confident offer strategies dependent on fear and war mongering, followers of Jesus have a history and track record that actually has worked in such a world. They are, or could be, sources of enormous hope.
Among the earliest followers of Jesus, witnesses fanned out to the four winds staking their lives, often losing them, on the conviction that Jesus’ love sets people free in a way that empowers them to experience and foster true human flourishing. Everything, in fact, that the best governments have aspired and perhaps claimed to achieve, has been experienced in communities of the Lord Jesus, especially when they have been transplanted in bleak and broken corners of the world. Robert Woodbury, historian and Christ-follower, has demonstrated that wherever witnesses for Jesus who called people to turn to Jesus have gone, most often conditions for stable social and political governance has followed. His research shows the wisdom of God to the powers: follow Jesus to the ends of the world, witness to his way, invite the interested to join his way, and change the world. (see: (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/january-february/world-missionaries-made.html)
In the context of his teaching on duties to governing authorities in the Roman Empire, Paul urges that we owe nothing to anyone except to love. He said it in the face of much uncertainty, lots of fear, few or no rights, where some wanted simply to acquiesce and others to annihilate the ungodly. He said it in a world so different and yet so like our own.
Hope can arise when followers of the world’s Messiah aim at “owing” their world nothing but love–as fully and completely as the God-filled and empowered can. In other ages simply that has brought a rewrite of the human story. Why not ours?
Some will be disappointed by all this because I haven’t told them how to vote, whether to choose the “Liar” or the “Lecher.” Some will be disappointed that I haven’t commented more on these characterizations. Many others have done so in ways helpful and not.
I believe we should vote and do our best under the circumstances, God being our helper. But I urge a refocusing of our hope by reaffirming our citizenship; by recognizing appropriately the blessing and woe that will follow the elections no matter the outcome; and by embracing our true calling and mission. We do not expect government to save us, we accept the good as blessing that allows our witness to the better way of Jesus, we accept the woe as the background or context in which the better way of Jesus achieves attractive and alluring display; and we embody the culture of the ultimate governance of God. We keep at it. We trust. And we see what God will do.
We have good reason to expect outbreaks of the stunning governance of God among us that blesses the world, such that the very best we might expect from an election would be mere parody.