6 Suggestions for Christians for Engaging in Politics

[Disclaimer: I wrote this before I read Bryan Roberts’ “7 Things Christians Need to Remember About Politics.” Go read that first–it’s shorter and funnier.]

With the Republican and Democratic National Conventions having taken place over the last two weeks, we can officially say that we’re entering into election season (i.e. that time when the general public begins to pay attention).

A couple friends who pastor churches in non-DC parts of the country asked me if we feel the need to address politics at The District Church, being in the very belly of the beast (my words, not theirs). Specifically, they were asking–given the intense polarization and often-unproductive arguing that we see around us, even in the church–about the need to address how we interact with those who disagree with us.

So far, we haven’t needed to. In our church community, we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, and yes, even people who don’t care about politics; we have Hill staffers, White House staffers, activists, advocates, lobbyists, policy wonks, and more–and we’ve all come together as the body of Christ, recognizing that our allegiance is first to Jesus before any party or even country.

Even so, every four years (or every two, if you pay attention to mid-terms; or all the time, if you’re even more politically engaged), posts about politics pop up with increasing frequency on social media, eliciting often-furious back-and-forths that usually end up doing nothing more than reminding each side how right they are and how stupid the other side is.

So I figured I’d try to offer a few suggestions on how we can engage with one another on matters of politics in healthy ways.

1. Offer Grace.

As Christians, we believe that–as Brennan Manning, Dorothy Day, and numerous others have put it–all is grace. Just as God has been gracious to us in giving us so much more than we deserve, so we are also called to extend that grace to others: don’t presume that just because someone disagrees with you, they’re somehow less clever or less informed; don’t assume that just because someone’s faith doesn’t work itself out the same way as yours, they must therefore not be a Christian. God’s grace is big enough to meet all of us where we are and move us on a journey toward him–that should always be the foundation on which we build.

2. Be Humble.

With grace comes humility–the understanding that there is a God and it is not us, the recognition that there is far more that we do not know than that we do, the attitude of not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought (Romans 12:3) but of thinking of others as better than us (Philippians 2:3). When we recognize that grace is a gift from God and that the God we serve is far bigger than any disagreements we might have–or even the greatest challenges we might face as a nation and as a world–we are free to work as hard as we can, speak as passionately as we can, and do as much as we can, to change the world for the better, all the while remembering that it does not all depend on us, and that God brings good out of even the most awful things. And so we may walk humbly with our God and interact humbly with one another.

3. Be Civil.

Rich Mouw (president of Fuller Theological Seminary) has written a tremendous book called Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (that was republished recently), and last year did an interview with NPR about “Restoring Political Civility.” He talks often about the need for civility in discourse even as we maintain our convictions–to paraphrase: believing something strongly doesn’t mean you need to be a jerk about it, nor does getting along with people mean you have to check your beliefs at the door to find the lowest common denominator.

Grace and humility necessitate civility.

4. Work with Facts.

Jon Huntsman, Jr. (one of the Republican presidential candidates this year) said in a recent interview that one of the problems is that everyone appears to have their own facts, which means we’re not even starting from the same point!

Sadly, we live in a time when we can’t just take politicians at their word–there’s just too much spin (and even outright lying). So starting with the facts is always a good thing to do. Factcheck.org and Politifact are two non-partisan groups that do a great job running political claims and statements through the Truth-o-Meter.

Also, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post has a very helpful blog–“Wonkblog”–that keeps me up-to-date with summaries of the latest goings-on.

5. Read and (Carefully) Apply Scripture.

Of course, facts aren’t the whole picture and focusing on individual facets of policy–even if they’re true–can sometimes obscure the larger picture; and we must always view everything through the lens of Scripture and the larger narrative of God.

Just this morning, I was reading Jeremiah 22 and was reminded of the standard to which God called the kings of Judah (and, by implication and extrapolation, any political leader):

Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (v.3)

Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord. (vv.15-16)

According to this standard, neither of the standard-bearers for the major parties matches up particularly well. The middle class has gotten a lot of attention, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the size and health of the middle class is one gauge of the health of our society.

But a better measure is the welfare of the those who have the least. Scripture is full of references to the poor, and how God is particularly concerned with their plight; for instance, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Prov. 14:31).

This is the standard to which we should be calling our leaders: doing justice and righteousness; protecting the oppressed, marginalized and vulnerable; and upholding the cause of the poor and needy–those whom Jesus referred to in Matthew 25 as “the least of these.”

[Brief aside: check out “The Line,” a new documentary from Sojourners, World Vision, Bread for the World, Oxfam America, and the Christian Community Development Association, that highlights this very issue.]

6. Be Prayerful

Ultimately, it comes back to God. As the people of God, it has to.

Prayer is not simply a way for us to petition God on the things we’d like to see happen, or to try to get God on our side: “Please let (insert presidential candidate) win!” or “Please keep (insert presidential candidate) from winning!”

It is also, and more importantly, the place where we come to meet with God, and to have our thoughts, our desires, and our wills, transformed by God to be more in line with who he is and what he desires–and reading and understanding Scripture is a good step toward being able to discern those things. Prayer is where we are changed, first–before that person with whom we’re disagreeing, before the policies and structures of our country, before the ossified injustices of our world. Prayer is where we grow our roots in God in order that we may bear fruit in the world.

In prayer, we are likely to be challenged to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God; to lower the accusing finger, to replace the vitriolic Facebook post with a civil one, to refrain from posting that oh-so-funny-but-not-particularly-gracious tweet; to truly love our enemies–that is, any who are opposed to us–and to seek their good.

I wonder if we could truly make this “the most important election of our lifetime,” as so many are wont to say, by showing the world that, as Christians, we are beholden not to a certain political ideology or party, nor to a particular economic or social philosophy, but that we are sons and daughters of the Most High God, who live out our faith with the love and graciousness and conviction and humility that are characteristic of our family.

That would be pretty awesome.

[Photo credits: Romney & Obama, Joe Raedle & Olivier Douliery / Getty Images; Richard Mouw, Fuller Theological Seminary website]

Spurgeon: what a joyful Christian you ought to be!

Grateful for this reminder of perspective from Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening:

“Thou, Lord, hast made me glad through thy work.” Psalm 92:4

Do you believe that your sins are forgiven, and that Christ has made a full atonement for them? Then what a joyful Christian you ought to be! How you should live above the common trials and troubles of the world! Since sin is forgiven, can it matter what happens to you now? Luther said, “Smite, Lord, smite, for my sin is forgiven; if thou hast but forgiven me, smite as hard as thou wilt;” and in a similar spirit you may say, “Send sickness, poverty, losses, crosses, persecution, what thou wilt, thou hast forgiven me, and my soul is glad.”

Christian, if thou art thus saved, whilst thou art glad, be grateful and loving. Cling to that cross which took thy sin away; serve thou him who served thee. “I beseech you therefore, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”

Let not your zeal evaporate in some little ebullition of song. Show your love in expressive tokens. Love the brethren of him who loved you. If there be a Mephibosheth anywhere who is lame or halt, help him for Jonathan’s sake. If there be a poor tried believer, weep with him, and bear his cross for the sake of him who wept for thee and carried thy sins.

Since thou art thus forgiven freely for Christ’s sake, go and tell to others the joyful news of pardoning mercy. Be not contented with this unspeakable blessing for thyself alone, but publish abroad the story of the cross.

Holy gladness and holy boldness will make you a good preacher, and all the world will be a pulpit for you to preach in. Cheerful holiness is the most forcible of sermons, but the Lord must give it you. Seek it this morning before you go into the world. When it is the Lord’s work in which we rejoice, we need not be afraid of being too glad.

My thoughts on the Chick-fil-A situation …

Now, I love Chick-fil-A’s service, hospitality and college scholarship program; the Spicy Chicken Deluxe and Chick-fil-A sauce are favorites; and I appreciate their mission–“To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A”–which includes keeping the sabbath and being closed on Sunday (as much as Sunday is the day I tend to most crave it!).

My thoughts, though, tend to be more on the ‘Christian response’ this past week. To borrow my friend Bryson’s Facebook status:

I wish the Church would mobilize around issues like inner-city education, health care disparities, the prison boom, and a host of other issues in the same manner that many are rallying around Chik-Fil-A. [sic]

Seriously. American Christians just helped the restaurant chain set a one-day sales record. Imagine what our country would look like if the almost-80% of Americans who identify as Christians actually did what Jesus told us to do:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matt. 25:34-40)

When Jesus said, “Feed the hungry,” I don’t think he was talking about ourselves …

Freedom

[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Freedom.”]

Freedom’s something we hear a lot about here in the US. America is, after all, “the land of the free.” The First Amendment of our Constitution grants us various freedoms, including the freedom of religion—and we are thankful for the freedom to worship that we have and remember those in many parts of the world that don’t have this same freedom. The Declaration of Independence affirms that, among the inalienable rights of all men—and women—are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Indeed, ‘freedom’ can mean different things to different people at different times. And I think relearning or rediscovering God’s idea of freedom is part of what Paul is trying to get at in Galatians 5.

I started, though, by Googling “freedom,” and the first result that popped up was actually an application for your computer called “Freedom.” This app comes on the recommendation of writers, authors, and screenwriters such as Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, the late great Nora Ephron, Seth Godin, and many others. And what it does is that it blocks your access to the internet for a specific period of time so that you can be productive.

You’re welcome!

Anyway … back to Galatians.

1. What we’re free from

In Galatians 5:1, Paul writes:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

The slavery that he’s referring to is this idea that in order to earn right standing before God, you can, you need to, do things—in this case, for the non-Jewish Christians, follow the requirement of circumcision of the law of Moses. This is the idea that the outsiders were propagating, and the idea that Paul has come against full-force. He’s saying, “If you think that even a little bit of obeying the law will improve your standing with God, you’re disregarding the very core of the gospel of Christ, which is that it is all grace.

Some of you know that I was born and grew up in Hong Kong. I grew up going to a great church, where I learned the value of family and of reading and memorizing the Bible, and of the importance of a relationship with Jesus. I also learned—from church culture as well—what it meant to be a “good Christian.” A “good Christian” is someone who doesn’t get drunk, who doesn’t swear, who can recite Bible verses, who has as-close-to-perfect Sunday school and Sunday service attendance as possible, who knows the right words to say in a prayer, who knows the right words to say to someone who isn’t a Christian, who has said the ‘sinner’s prayer’ to invite Jesus into his or her heart, who has been baptized, and who doesn’t sin any more.

But I don’t think I really knew what grace really meant for a long time, because whenever I did mess up, whenever I did sin, I’d feel like I’d messed my whole life up, that I’d let God down and that he was looking down on me with disappointment and anger and judgment, that I was no longer welcome in his presence—not until I said sorry, and maybe did some penance.

Please don’t hear me wrong: repentance, confession, forgiveness, and absolution are all vital parts of the Christian life. They are part of how we relate to and interact with God: acknowledging wrongs and reconciling and moving forward. And it does matter how you live your life—I’ll talk about this more in next week’s message—but they don’t determine how much God loves us. Let me say that again: your actions, your addictions, your good deeds, your screw-ups, your triumphs, your brokenness, your baggage—none of this determines how much God loves you.

Years ago, I read The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning; and it changed my life. After years of guilt and shame at not being able to live up to the standard I thought I was ‘supposed to’ live up to, falling short in failing to always treat people kindly, in losing my temper (I was an angry teenager, too!), in struggling with issues of lust and pornography, in taking for granted the many blessings I had been given rather than accepting them with gratitude and using them to bless others, and in a hundred different other ways—for the first time, through the words of this book, I began to truly understand grace—amazing grace, the grace of Jesus Christ.

I realized—not just in my head but in the very core of my being—that I didn’t have to work to earn God’s favor any more. I realized that God wasn’t keeping track of the number of times I’d failed and fallen. I realized that God loves me, accepts me, and welcomes me, as I am. I realized what it means when Paul writes, in Romans 5:8, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

And in that moment, it was like a tremendous weight had been lifted from my shoulders or like I’d walked into the cool of an air-conditioned house from the oppressive heat outside. In that moment, I knew that God wasn’t some sort of record-keeper but a loving Father who only desires the best for those he has created. In that moment, I knew that there was freedom to make detours on the journey, to get lost, to make mistakes along the way, as long as my eyes were fixed on him, on home. In that moment, I knew I was free.

Free from feeling as if it all depended on me and that at any moment I might slip off the narrow path that God had meticulously drawn out for me. Free from striving, from fear, from guilt and shame. Free to live, as Jesus said in John 10:10, “life to the full.”

2. What we’re free for

In Galatians 5:6b, Paul writes, “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

Our modern and postmodern minds like to keep things separate; it’s easier to understand that way. So we see faith as an entirely spiritual or mental thing and love as an emotional thing. We understand faith as a decision you make in your mind. If you asked the question, “What is faith?”, most Americans would probably say something like “belief in God” or “belief in a God,” and they’d be referring to the mental assent that there is a superior divine being.

On the other hand, love—we’re told—is an emotional thing, a feeling, something you know in your heart. So when you get all gooey around someone, it must be love; and then after a while, you stop feeling so great about them—you fall “out of love”—and you quit. Or you hear Jesus say, “Love your neighbor” and “Love your enemy,” and you wonder how on earth we’re supposed to manufacture or drum up feelings of love for people that don’t like us or people that you find it hard to feel any sympathy for. Or you hear the commandment, “Love the Lord your God,” and you’re left with this impression, this understanding, that you’re supposed to feel great about God all the time, and if you don’t feel it, then you must be doing something wrong and God must have abandoned you.

But thankfully, the Bible’s understanding of faith and love is a little different.

The writer of Hebrews says, faith is “trust in God [that] is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see” (11:1, MSG). Faith is about trust: trust in a person; trust in a relationship; trust that Jesus’ life and his sacrifice and resurrection by God were and are enough to redeem and reconcile all of creation, including you. That’s faith.

And love clearly can’t just be that warm fuzzy feeling if Jesus expects us to love our enemies. C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:

Love as distinct from “being in love” is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit, reinforced by … the grace [received] from God.

This is love: seeking the good of the other through tangible action.

Our common cultural understanding of freedom is being unencumbered by restraints; it’s being able to do whatever we feel like, whenever we feel like it, with whomever we feel like doing it. Generations, and particularly the last few, have been told over and over again, “Do what you want. Do what makes you happy. Do your own thing. Be free.”

And so we look at the Bible, which says we’re free from judgment, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and yet there still seems to be so much talk about sin and doing good works and living a holy life, even having to trust someone (even if it is God) and being called to love—to take action, to put others before ourselves. But that sounds like more rules and regulations; that sounds like work; that doesn’t sound particularly free, does it?

Well, not by the world’s definition of freedom, no.

On July 3, there was an opinion piece in the New York Times called “The Downside of Liberty,” and in it, Kurt Andersen points out the impact of the world’s definition of freedom:

“Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators.

This culture of “freedom” has become—for individuals, companies, political parties—what Paul warned against in v.13: “an opportunity for self-indulgence.” The verse says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters”—freedom from fear, from shame, from the slavery of sin—“only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.

Wait, free from slavery in order to be free for … slavery? I thought we were free!

Yes, we are. But this is true freedom: being free to be who we were created to be.

In Genesis 1:27—“God created humanity in his image, male and female he created them”—we discover that we are created to be like God, created to show God to the world, and given the freedom to pursue that purpose. And as we read through Scripture or look even at our own lives, we see how everybody in history has epic failed in being like God—in justice, in grace, in community, in relationship, in love, in seeking the good of others in tangible action.

All but one. Jesus was the full embodiment of God in human form. Jesus knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was loved by his Father regardless of what he did or didn’t do. Jesus lived the life we were meant to live—who showed us what it looked like to be truly human—and died the death that we were meant to die. Jesus was the freest of us all and calls us to do as he did in loving God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving others.

Jesus knew what he, what we, were made for. Jesus chose to use his freedom to live life as it was intended to be lived. Jesus became like a slave, washing the feet of his disciples—a servant’s task; and so Paul writes, “We also should become slaves to one another.” Jesus loved his neighbors; he loved his enemies; he loved the unloved, the outcasts, the marginalized; he gave himself for their good, so that all could be saved from the power of sin and death, restored to right relationship with God and to true freedom—he sought our ultimate good, even before we knew what that was. And the ultimate exercise of his freedom was to have faith in God and, in love, to give his life so that we could live. Even hanging on the cross, Jesus was free, loving his enemies and seeking their good: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

We are called not to use our freedom for selfish means or self-indulgence, but to focus on the things that really matter—to be who we were created to be.

It is by the work of the Spirit, through our trust in God, that we are set free from sin and death. And we are set free for the purpose of being who we were made to be—to love God and to love one another.

For it is for freedom that Christ set us free.

Jesus Revealed

Through my friend JR Briggs, I was connected with a new Jesus project, called Jesus Revealed: Encountering the Authentic Jesus. Now I’m normally pretty skeptical of Jesus videos–they can be trite, cheesy, unoriginal, or unhelpful. But I’ve been impressed with this set. In seven sessions over three discs, Brit Andy Frost brings the story of Jesus to life by looking at our Lord from some different perspectives, including Underdog, Revolutionary, Hero, Headliner, and Dreamer.

According to his bio, Andy’s a “surf-obsessed, movie-loving, Bible-reading, globetrotting Londoner. He is the Director of ShareJesus International and he is passionate about seeing how the Church can reconnect with society and culture. Andy is part of the leadership team for Be Church based in Southwest London.” I’d be lying if I said I don’t have a soft spot for a fellow Londoner, but more than that, I think Jesus Revealed could be a really useful resource, especially in small group settings and especially for people who are needing an introduction to this man Jesus.

If you’re looking for a resource like this–and even if you’re not, actually!–I’d encourage you to check out Jesus Revealed: Encountering the Authentic Jesus.