In recent days I have heard several people say something like: “I am not trying to be political, now, …” or “Please don’t take this as a political statement,” or “Not to be political but … !” I think I know what each was trying to say, or not to say. But each time I thought to myself, “But … it is political!”
They were making a point about the church or the gospel or what they believed to be an appropriate response to present circumstances, and they offered this disclaimer. They were not trying or wishing to be “political.”
But how can people who follow Jesus as their Messiah, that is “King,” speak about or act upon their faith in the so-called real world without sounding and in fact being “political?” If Jesus is truly Lord, not only for his followers but also the whole world, as his followers will claim, how could they talk about anything of significance to people in general or about some facet of the kingdom Jesus leads, without treading on ground that has been claimed by political partisans of one stripe or another? When I say “black lives matter,” someone will protest, ‘Why are you being so political? And, by the way, all lives matter?” When I say we should care about refugees, whether documented or not, someone will say, “You’re just being political and are advocating for anarchy and putting us all in danger!” Consider these statements and responses. In these statements, I am not saying we should do such and such; I am saying we should care and love fervently and consistently. The responses take offense and assume that underneath the statements lie all sorts of objectionable, partisan, and even Non-Christian proposals. But honestly, I insist that it is critical to stress and demonstrate that black lives matter in these times and that followers of Jesus must care about refuges—not for any partisan political agenda but precisely because I seek to be a follower of Jesus.
The fact is we cannot avoid sounding and being “political.” If we talk about peace, justice, truth, goodness, right and wrong, the poor, equality, freedom, hunger, the rights of people everywhere (including the unborn), the need to protect the vulnerable (including, again, the unborn but not excluding the already born who live under duress or threat), violence and crime, war and terror, economics and opportunity, the homeless who have never lived anywhere but the U.S. and the homeless who have come to be here more recently, documented or not, the need for basic and emergency health care, and … the list just keeps on going—we will inevitably speak and communicate something that sounds, and likely is, “political.” We will say or do something that others may admire or scorn, but most all will view as political in some sense.
When we say we do not want to be “political,” often we imply that there is a realm of being or acting that exists outside that of the church or sphere where followers of Jesus live their lives. In this realm, we live “above” or “apart from” or “alongside” others who do not follow Jesus and certainly still others who oppose Jesus. Our citizenship, we say, is in Heaven (as does the Apostle Paul, Phil. 3:20) but what we often mean by this is that we belong to some place other than the normal spaces and places where our neighbors and we live most of our waking and sleeping hours.
That is not what Paul meant, however. In fact, he meant just the opposite. He meant to convey that precisely because he held citizenship in Heaven he had to live and speak and act in certain ways in the other realm where he was also a citizen (Rome). He was not offering a rationale for dis-engagement in the real-world circumstances that influenced, sometimes crushingly and often sinfully, ordinary people’s lives. Rather, he was naming the source for a life that seriously challenged and offered a beautiful and powerful alternative to the current world generating those very circumstances.
The result was that the way he and other followers of Jesus lived, spoke, and responded to their world caused others to regard them as “world-subverters” and disrupters. At one level, nothing of the kind was going on—they did not seek office or privilege or power. At deeper levels, though, they did bear witness persistently to a different and better way to live, indeed a way for human beings to flourish. They did not directly concern themselves with overtly political strategies, whatever such might have entailed, but they did live consistently as though the real sovereign of the universe did not live in Rome, and the leader who did was not divine, and could not deliver on the Imperial claims. The early Christ-followers lived in such ways that the explanations they gave as to why, when asked, seemed interesting and attractive. They also would not have wanted to be merely “political,” but truly their life together had profound political weight.
Here is the two-fold point I commend: First, if it’s important, and truly matters to the One before whom every creature will one day give an account, it will have political substance. Review the list above again (it begins with: “ … peace, justice, truth, goodness …”). These qualities of character and expressions of relationship are of consequence for all people, not just followers of Christ. The Creator who made all things “very good” once, has acted in history, culminating in Jesus and his people, to renew and restore. We live on the forefront, and as signs, of such renewal. We are called to be agents of it however and wherever we can. To whatever degree there is an intersection between being agents of the renewal and the use of local, regional, national governmental authority, we will inevitably engage in words and deeds that have political import and influence. We should understand this and live with passion our commitments to Jesus as truly Lord of all.
Thus, as agents and signs of the renewal coming and already begun, we are the people of peace who practice peace and become practiced in the way of reconciling the otherwise irreconcilable. We are people of justice—the righteousness reflected and made possible in the teaching and ministry of Jesus, people who know and experience blessing in the pursuit of Jesus’ right ways. We acclaim the One who told the truth, and embodies the realities of which legitimate claims to truth are but reflections, and we seek authentic ways to live the life we see in Jesus’ story. We expect to be filled and empowered by the Spirit to live his story again in our day. We are people of goodness, the kind of goodness we might find hard to articulate but easy to point to as Jesus welcomes children, touches the untouchables, gives people another chance and so much more because God makes the sun shine on both the good and bad. Above all, we are people of love, the love Jesus taught and lived, the love that expresses world-changing power by laying self down. We are the kind of people who seek the power of love and reject the love of power. We are that kind of people, his people. And, so forth. On all these fronts, we cannot help but voice and express Jesus’ way and invite others into that way.
Second, our hope is not that we can take over and work the political systems of this world in ways that will bring kingdom renewal. That isn’t what happened in the first century among followers of Jesus who “turned the world upside down,” nor what happened in the great revival movements that brought transformation to their cultures. Instead, they sought and taught and lived the way of Jesus such that they demonstrated the welcome, respect, freedom, healing, and personal and relational changes for which many in their world longed. They put on display a different way to be human. They offered a form of human and relational flourishing that drew others in.
Now, hear this important caveat. Some of us, some of our brightest and most gifted and fruitful, have been called to work within the political systems. “To salt and light” the systems in kingdom-ward ways. All praise to God. May their tribe increase! The rest of us, as church, can support their sacred work enormously if we will take the way of Jesus with passion and power as I’ve tried to describe. When Jesus’ friends working within the systems seek to influence the systems to the counter-cultural ways of the Kingdom, they need to have places and communities where followers of Jesus are demonstrating the wisdom of God’s ways. They need people like us living well the Jesus’ way.
However we engage in these matters, it will be “political.” We cannot help that but we can choose to contribute to solutions instead of adding to the problems.