Christian Politics

Sunday, November 16, 2008

In my last blog post I addressed the question of how we can know whether a President (or any political official) is a Christian, and suggested that the real question we need to ask (one that should affect our vote) is not about their personal faith, but about how they will govern, what they value, who they will represent, how they will conduct themselves... In this post I would like to explore that more concretely: What does it mean to govern in a Christ-like way?

In America when that question is evoked one immediately thinks of the Christian Right. I would like to propose however that the way the right - in other words, they way my church - has gone about this has been in a way that reflects the opposite values of the kingdom of God. Let me interject that I in many ways agree with the positions themselves, but what I object to, and see a profoundly un-Christ-like is how we go about pursuing those goals. For example I am pro-life, but I seriously question whether the pro-life movement has a reputation of grace and Christ-like love.

So what I would like to unpack is what the values of the kingdom of God are, and how they can be applied to political life. One way that Jesus defines the kingdom of God is in contrast to the "kingdom of Satan," or in John's terminology, in contrast to the "world". By 'world' here John means 'worldliness'. In other words, a system of values which Walter Wink calls the "domination system". This world system is run though force and dominance. The strong rise to the top, the weak lose. It's law of justice is the rule of quid pro quo - you get what you have coming to you. In stark contrast to this Jesus says that his kingdom is "not from this world" system. If it were a world-values-based kingdom Jesus continues - he would have used military might (a legion of angels) to attack the Romans. But the kingdom of God does not come to us by force, but comes in weakness and humility. The 'first' are made last, and the last first. The poor are blessed. Its law of justice is a redeeming justice that seeks to heal and mend. The true leader "will be the servant of all."

Throughout history many people have tried to adopt a "two kingdoms" approach to this, saying that while they acknowledge that the kingdom of God is the right way to go, it is unrealistic. In the "real world" things work differently, and if you want to move in the real political world you need to use manipulation, power, wealth, and force to survive and win in that world. Others have seen this world of dog-eat-dog dominance as so evil that they have concluded that it is simply not possible for a Christian to be involved in politics at all. I would like to propose here a third option - that we should be involved in every part of our society, that we should have a role in how our country and society is shaped and not simply abandon it, reducing faith to a private affair. But to do so we will need to find a way of being in politics that can be "in the world, but not of it". One of the models for this comes from the Anabaptist response to our prison system which involved introducing restorative justice. That's a practical example of how a completely new, deeply Christian paradigm can engage and reform the existing system. I've blogged a bit about this HERE.

For example a Christian would have to reject the dirty political campaigning that seeks to manipulate voters through fear, and instead appeal to the good in us, to serve, to engage, to believe and hope and work to make our country a more just place. It would need to be one that does not polarize people into 'us versus them', but seeks to reconcile both our divisions at home, and our divisions abroad. It would have to be a politics that has its focus on compassion, rather than on law. It would need to be a politics that is accountable, transparent, and honest with its citizens. It would need to be a politics that acknowledges our human penchant towards sin and pride and which is therefore open to hearing from the other side, rather than one that seeks to have absolute control, trumping the Constitution, the Congress, and the courts. It would have to be one that can see its errors and learn, rather than one that insists that it is beyond error. As if learning and adapting were a sign of weakness.

The issue here is not about specific policies. We might disagree on the best way to address poverty for example. But I think where we can agree is that the way that (neo) conservative politics has conducted itself, both in its governing and its campaigning, has been in a way that is diametrically opposed to the values of Christ and his kingdom. And what's more, the conservative church has uncritically aligned themselves with this new Constantinianism. So much so that for me to critique it virtually disqualifies me from being a conservative, even though many of the positions I hold are conservative both morally and theologically.

I think the church's tunnel vision here stems from a deeper issue. We cannot recognize this worldly behavior in a politician because we can't even recognize it in a pastor. I've gone to churches where the pastor was extremely arrogant, prideful, and judgmental. Even though there is, biblically speaking, no sin that is confronted more harshly by both Jesus and Paul than religious pride and judgmentalism, this pastor was not seen as someone with a profound sin problem, but as a "powerful preacher". Until we truly value Christ-like servant leadership in church, we will not as a church be able to instill those kingdom values in those people in our congregation who will go into politics, nor for that matter will we be able to disciple those who will become the future CEO's of our world in what it looks like to do that as Jesus would, and on and on. The values of the kingdom are not simply about being for or against something, it is a way of being in the world which is characterized by grace.

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Is Obama a Christian?

Monday, November 10, 2008

There are basically two ways for an Evangelical to answer that question. One if focused on affirming a certain set of doctrinal statements, the other is focused on a conversion experience. I would maintain that the doctrinal definition is one that is often upheld by Evangelical leaders and academics (i.e. those with a voice in the public square), while the second relational definition is held by the masses.

For example in "American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving" sociologist Christian Smith views Evangelicalism in context of its doctrinal positions in contrast to Liberal Christianity. However in interview after interview the actual Evangelicals in Smith's sociological study continually define their own faith not in terms of orthodox doctrine per se, but as a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. What we see here a discrepancy between how Evangelicalism is understood as doctrinally focused by its leaders, and relationally focused by its laity.

Along these lines, former Moral Majority VP Cal Thomas bases his definition of an Evangelical on a set of doctrinal issues, and concludes that "Barack Obama is not a Christian". But if we instead ask whether Obama is a Christian based on the relational criteria that most Evangelicals actually hold to, we get a very different answer. Obama can speak very naturally about his relationship with Jesus Christ. For example addressing a church he tells the story of alter call experience when he was introduced to,

"someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life. It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith... kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works." (full text HERE)

It is interesting to note that in the interview from the Chicago Sun-Times which Cal Thomas references as the sole source for his conclusion of Obama's non-Christian status, Obama is quoted there as well as describing himself as having a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ". Thomas omits that part, and only focuses on his doctrinal disagreements.

But let me throw a wrench into all of this. I would propose that whether a politician is a Christian (using either of the two definitions) is actually pretty irrelevant. What we need to know is how the Christian faith plays out in how he does politics. A politician's personal faith is something that I have no connection with since I do not know them personally, where we interact is on a political level, and so what I need to know is how they conduct their public and political life and the values and policies they have. Are those vales influenced by the character and values and way of Jesus? Are their actions and values reflecting Jesus and his kingdom? That is what matters to us.

We Evangelicals have in the past paid way too much attention to politician's personal faith, and way too little (if we paid attention at all) to what it would mean to govern in a Christ-like way, or what Jesus would do if he were them. As a result it has been enough for a politician to simply say they were "one of us" and we simply assumed that this must automatically translate into them making all the right choices, with relatively zero reflection on what those choices might be, or what Christian leadership on a political level might look like. This kind of naivete has lead to us evangelicals being easy targets for politicians to take advantage of. Former White House Aide David Kuo tells an eye opening insider story of this which you can check out online HERE.

I'd say based on this that this biblical illiteracy of what it means to be a Christian politician - or better how to be a politician in a "what-would-Jesus-do way" is of major importance. What I would like to do over the next few blog posts is to outline what I see as a biblical criteria for Jesus-style politics, leadership, power, and public life. But that will have to wait for the next post...

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Yes we can

Sunday, November 09, 2008

(If you can't see the above video, you can read the full transcript HERE)

I hesitate to talk about politics on this blog since it is so polarizing. But with the election of Obama I believe that we are experiencing something that transcends politics. Something of vital transformative significance that goes beyond the divides of red and blue, and indeed beyond the boarders of even our own country. Something with world significance.

You can see it in the people's faces as you watch the above video from Obama's acceptance speech. Faces of people who are longing to hope. Obama addresses the so called apathy of today's youth, and you can see two teenage girl's faces light up. Because in fact this younger generation is one that yearns to be involved, it is one that cares deeply about the world around it. If you want to appeal to youth today, you do so by appealing to service, and you can see that when Obama does, he connects.

Throughout the above speach you can see Obama connecting with "those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve". That is the quintensencial spirit of post modernism. But as a post modern, I find that I deeply want to believe, I want to hope. I just can't put my faith into something that I can immediately see though as hollow. I can't help but be cynical when I can see that a politician is once again trying to sell me their agenda. But when Obama speaks I sense there is something real. Not just inspiringly and eloquently said. Not just another pretty package, but substantive and deep... It has been a long long time since I have felt that about any politician.

Looking at the reaction of the crowd that night, talking with people around me at work, and watching the reaction all around the world, I get the feeling I am not alone in this. All around the world, people who are accustomed to rolling their eyes, who are quick to be cynical, are finding themselves deeply moved. Something big is happening. Something bigger than one person, no matter how charismatic or inspiring. Something way bigger than politics. It is a chance for us to all pull together as one people. It's what should have happened - what could have happened after 9-11.

I remember right after 9-11 there was this amazing solidarity across the world. Everyone was an American that day. Everyone was in those two towers. But then something happened that turned that unity into polarizing animosity both within the U.S. and across the world. It became a time characterized by a spirit of fear, and "us vs. them" thinking. Red vs. blue. Conservatives vs. liberals. We may find when it comes to policy decitions that some good solutions come from the right, and others come from the left. Most will likely be a combination of both - mixing concerns of responsibility with rights. But whether we are right or left, one change we have all been waiting for, like people waiting for the sun to break through the gray clouds, is a change from fear to hope. A change from polarization to unity.

That spirit of hope is what we needed back in the aftermath of 9-11. It is what we have all been waiting for so long. It is how to bring out the best in us instead of the worst in us. It is how we can just maybe take the mess our world is in and make it better. But as is often the case in history, it takes the right man to come along and lead a people. It is never just about that man. It's never just about a Martin Luther, or a Martin Luther King. But a movement that ripples out and changes the world, much of the time can only start when someone truly great helps to give it a voice, and helps us to find our voice.

Yes we can.

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