At its very core, the pursuit of politics is the pursuit of power.
At its very core, the journey of Christian discipleship is the abdication of power.
At its very core, the reigning Evangelical theory of involvement is centered on amassing political and cultural power.
We cannot power the spread of the gospel with a fuel that is contrary to the gospel. But, to the contrary, we have politicized our faith, outsourcing our witness and our hope to our political agenda. By way of example, we’re more passionate about our political goal of preventing the legalization of same-sex marriage than we are about the discipleship goal of preventing divorce between Christians.
Our gospel is not the pursuit of power.
Jesus lived among a people who, like us, were grieved by the lifestyles that surrounded them. Jesus lived among a people who, unlike us, were powerless in their own political system. They sought to make him their king, cheering his entrance into Jerusalem with a roar and palm branches, hoping his strength would empower their goals. Their greeting echoed Maccabee’s entrance into Jerusalem centuries before, after his defeat of the Seleucid army (1 Maccabees 13:51), and their message was clear: do to Rome what the Maccabees did to Greece. But Jesus showed them a still more excellent way–he showed them that love always overpowers power.
Jesus refused the lure of power because his mission was founded on a greater power. Much like the story of Aslan, who knew the magic beneath the magic, Jesus understood the power beneath the power. And so rather than fight for his rights, rather than demand that Pilate act like a Christ follower, he surrendered his power. And as he did, he unleashed a power that would outlast Rome and turn the world upside down.
Somehow, we believe today that the best way to follow Jesus is to do the opposite of what he did. Somehow, today, we believe that, “at critical moments the best way to defend the Christian faith is to betray it, that the most effective way to advance the cause of Christ is to disobey his commands.” (Tim Gombis)
Many people will point to the early church’s conquest of Rome as a way of justifying our current (failing) power grab, claiming that the success of the early church demands that we do the same. And yet, I do not believe that the conversion of a political empire is one of the chief goals of the church.
In this area, I’m indebted to James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World for his analysis of cultural and political involvement. He believes that early Christian influence could be traced to three factors: the quantity and quality of intellectual output, the integration of Christians in the paideia, or Ivy League of their day, and their social solidarity with the poor. The early church’s embrace of the poor were so universally beneficial that they unwittingly undercut the imperial authority within the society. The effect was that “the bishops sacrificed political authority for spiritual authority, only to gain it back again.”
Let’s be clear here: the early church employed the exact opposite strategy that we are employing today. To be a Christian in the Roman empire was to abdicate power by partnering with the poor while also joining the highest academies of their day. To be a Christian in the US is to pursue political power in every social issue while also retreating to our own secluded academies.
We’ve seen two devastating results. First, this subtle marriage between our church and state has corrupted our mission. History is bursting with examples of how the pursuit of power corrupts the pursuer. The evangelical entrance into the political sphere has not evaded a similar fate. The Christian desire to spread the gospel’s influence has eroded into a battle for dominance. Evangelicals act out of the terror of losing our bully pulpit in the public square, the fear having neighbors who do not share our values, and so we seek to spread our morals through coercion and force.
The second result is a simple one: our efforts have not worked. It’s hard to argue that the country is no longer buying what Evangelicalism is selling.
We’ve chosen the wrong strategy, and it doesn’t even work.
But, even as I say all that, I acknowledge another problem: vast cultural change is impossible without amassing vast power. History teaches that changing the world nearly always requires the actions of the elites and their far-reaching, interwoven networks of power. Meaning, change occurs from the top down. Making our nation ‘Christian’ is more complex than simply converting a lot more people. The change we claim to seek really does require us to to sell our souls in exchange for political capitol.
I believe we seek the wrong change. After all, what does it profit a man to gain the entire world, but lose his soul?
I believe it is the role of the church to make disciples, and it is the role of God to change cultures. I believe that (as Hunter has outlined) we are called to follow the example of Christ, who’s defining action was the abdication of his power–first in the manger, and then on the cross. Instead of angrily seeking to amass enough power to force others to submit to our morals and political views, we’re called to be the presence of Christ to each other, our vocation, and the people around us.
We are called to love God and love people. This means we conduct ourselves in our churches in a way that is consistent with loving God and loving people. This means we enthusiastically enter into politics, the academies, the arts, the trades, into business and economics, and everything else with the twin goal of loving God and loving people. This means we move outward into our neighborhoods, our workplace, and our homes with no objective beyond loving God and loving people.
A truly Christian theory of involvement is a simple one: love God and love people.
May we always remember that it is impossible to love those we seek to overpower.