As I, like you, watch Pakistan crumble, I pray for them and silently give thanks for the democratic tradition of our own country. We don’t suffer from coups. We don’t watch our political representatives come to blows on TV. Yes, we’ve got our problems, but I’ll take our problems any day.
That said, I think we Christians face a serious dilemma. There is plenty of pious talk about the power and importance of faithful Christian witness within government, but how do we do it? How are we doing? We have at least three presidential candidates all being questioned about the extent to which their religious convictions affect their politics. And there’s a certain amount of gaming going on. What does it look like to the world when we Christians carry on this way? More importantly, what does God think?
In the second chapter of Ephesians, we read these words: “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one…that he might create in himself one new humanity in the place of two…” (Eph. 2:14-15, NRSV). There is something special going on in the Ephesian church. The power of God is being demonstrated in what would have been a pretty hostile Ephesian environment. That power has been made manifest in the formation of a new people. In other words, against the odds God is doing something politically unprecedented. In Christ, people who are hostile toward each other are becoming fellow-citizens.
A new people. Christ empowers us to be something different; to embody the realities of God’s kingdom; to provide a world-changing witness. This is our mission. The way we live matters to the world. It isn’t just what we profess about Jesus as Lord that counts. In Christ we are new creatures. In Christ, the world which is still to come has come. Christ’s followers embody that new creation world. It absolutely must show in the way we live.
So, what happens when we American Christians slip into the way of all flesh by succubming to the political game? What happens to the world – far beyond the church – when we Christians live like the rest of the world in politics? In government? What happens to the world when they can’t tell any difference between the way Christians behave politically and the way the rest of the world behaves?
For starters, let’s be willing to tell the truth about ourselves. This means that “spin” is really lying. I’m one of nine people in our (United Methodist) jurisdiction, “running” for bishop. We all want to remain Christian throughout the process even though we know it’s a political one. To do so, I must tell the truth about myself. I must not fudge on the facts. I must not inflate my accomplishments, even slightly, in order to position myself strategically. I must err to the side of truth and avoid exaggeration.
Likewise, I must always remember and demonstrate my conviction that all the episcopal candidates are my brothers and sisters in Christ. We are of the same Body, fellow citizens of God’s reign. I must trust God and the church to arrive at the right conclusions. When it is all said and done, the integrity of Christ’s Body and the mission of the church are far more important than whether or not I get elected bishop.
Ecclesial politics are not world politics. The stakes are higher by magnitudes for people running for offices such as the presidency. Nonetheless, for Christians, there are still boundaries – ecclesial or worldly – that we must not cross. Yet we do, to our shame. When we do, we need to humble ourselves and repent. True repentance itself is a witness to the power of God to change lives. When we make excuses for ourselves, we lose the chance to make a powerful witness.
I am bothered when Christians cross this line at any level. We use the rhetoric of responsible citizenship, but employ the tactics of political gamesmanship. Worse, to put it lamely, God is bothered. The Bible is replete with prophetic criticisms of what we jadedly accept as “inevitable” compromises.
Christian citizenship means ultimately believing in God’s providential guidance, no matter how disappointed or elated I may be with the outcome of any political process. I know that this value seems naive, but it really matters.
So, Christian candidates of all kinds and levels: run enthusiastically. Run vigorously. Run honestly. Run humbly. But remember the larger realities at play. At the end of the day, we will be judged by the Righteous Judge. Please, Christian friends and colleagues, keep me honest. And God give me the grace, when I err, to repent and return to the way of Jesus. Most of all, may the Church in every place offer a living witness like the Ephesian church. To the extent we are able, may we be responsible citizens of the world. But when push comes to shove, may we be found clearly identifying ourselves as citizens of God’s kingdom.