by Pastor Doug Kings
This past Sunday New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote an op-ed piece titled, “Progressive Christians Arise! Hallelujah!” Its subtitle was, “With a churchgoing Democrat in the White House, faith becomes more complicated in America. Thank God.” The thrust of Kristoff’s essay is that as practicing non-Evangelical Christians, Biden and other politicians show that Christianity cannot be identified with one political viewpoint. And he believes that diversity is a good thing.
Kristoff’s hope, he says in conclusion, is that seeing Christianity more broadly will help bridge the country’s political divisions.
Most churchgoers are still conservative, and white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump. But if the public face of faith becomes less dominated by right-wing figures, it may become easier for the country to heal its fissures. In the past, secular liberals sometimes stereotyped Christians as intolerant bigots, and conservative Christians sometimes stereotyped liberals as working to suppress freedom of religion. But when the religious/secular divide doesn’t neatly overlay the political divide, it may become a bit more difficult for either side to demonize the other.
While I appreciate Kristoff’s hope for greater political tolerance or even reconciliation, I don’t believe the presence of more diverse religious views will have much influence on that. For a host of reasons, Christians have been divided—and at each other’s throats—since the church began. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think this time is any different.
Aware of the religious-inspired wars that had wracked Europe the previous two centuries, and with a healthy dose of Enlightenment skepticism, the founders of this country, as we all know, chose to exclude religion from having a role in our national government. Whatever problems have been caused by the fact that many conservative Christians have recently chosen to publicly identify at Republicans, will not be fixed or balanced by more liberal Christians identifying as Democrats. For in both instances, such alignments are about politics, not faith.
Over the years, various political and cultural movements have tried to claim Jesus as “our guy.” Thus, more recently, Jesus has been identified as both a capitalist and a socialist, a supporter of state authority and a revolutionary. On specific issues, it has been confidently claimed that “if he were alive today” Jesus would support gun rights or abortion rights, abolishing taxes or establishing national health insurance, and so on.
All of this is nonsense, of course, because politics as we know it did not exist in Jesus’ day. He lived under a theocratic, military dictatorship, as did most of the world. More importantly, however, such beliefs profoundly misunderstand Jesus’ teaching and mission.
Next week is Holy Week, which focuses our attention on Jesus’ crucifixion. As varied as they are, all the gospels’ accounts of this event make clear that it was not about “politics.” John especially makes this clear in the dialog he creates between Jesus and Pilate. When Pilate asks Jesus directly if he is claiming to be the king of Judea, Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
While it was central to his teaching, there is still much debate among scholars about what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of God.” Where there is nearly universal agreement, however, is that Jesus was not suggesting that it would be a practical replacement for existing political authorities. Nor is there any indication that he personally desired political authority or had any intentions to acquire it, to the dismay, no doubt, of many around him.
No, to Jesus all of that was small potatoes, as is the political jockeying of our day. What party is in power, who sits on the throne, whose army is in the streets would be of no interest to him. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” for Jesus certainly understood, like the prophets before him, that justice and righteousness were the foundation of God’s rule in people’s lives.
The problem with identifying Jesus with any political movement is that they are always too small and expect too little. The goal of the kingdom is not the overthrow of this or that political power but of all humanity, and its arrogance and pride. Humans have hearts of stone, the prophets say, and God wants to give us genuine hearts of flesh, for lives of love and freedom.
Jesus was—and is—a radical (Latin: root), for his message goes to the core of our being. To change the world, we must change, and so he calls for repentance, transformation, and even dying, so that our true, God-given self might come truly alive.
The world today is in crisis—no lesser word will do. The pandemic has added a new dimension, but our planet’s agony is much larger than that as it faces an unfolding climate catastrophe, staggering economic disparity, unending warfare, and the displacement and homelessness of millions.
None of this will be solved by choosing party A or B, this or that program, one piece of legislation or another, because it’s the choices themselves that are the problem. They all presume the world as it is while Jesus says his mission is to “overcome the world.” However important any political choice we face may be, holding onto and living out that vision is our true and only hope.
Blessings in your life and ministry.