I will never, if I live to be 100, understand the wedding of a particular political party (left or right) with Christianity. The “religious right” days of the eighties, or the neo-religious right resurgence of the Tea Party, are both examples of politicians portraying themselves as “God’s Party.” It’s all reminiscent of the “Essenes,” “Zealots,” “Pharisees,” and “Herodians,” four different sects afoot in Israel when Jesus walked on the scene around 30AD (you can hear about them here).
His announcement that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” was warmly received by everyone at first, because all parties presumed that he’d be endorsing their view–which was, of course, the right view. Instead, by both teaching and action, he systematically deconstructed each of these views, revealing them as forgeries of God’s good reign rather than the real deal. Jesus’ kingdom was other. Less isolated than the Essenes, more separate than the Herodians, less religious than the Pharisees, and utterly other than the violence of the Zealots. The four factions, all of which claimed God’s endorsement, were revealed as being nothing more than self-interest clothed in God language.
Let’s not be too hard on them. They needed Jesus in order to see the possibilities of a way that had never been seen before, a kingdom “not of this world” which would, nonetheless, be made visible right in the midst of this world. Jesus would declare the charter for this kingdom in Luke 4 when he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has send me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” That’s what God’s reign is all about, and those who set about to follow Jesus on this path will see their own brokenness and need for personal transformation as well (as Peter demonstrated).
Jesus’ words have little to do with creating a strong national defense, lowering taxes for the wealthy, or defining the family. The have everything to do with turning the prevailing cultural values of both Rome and the Jews on their head by saying that it will only be in serving that greatness will be found; it will only be in giving that we’ll truly receive; and it will only be by laying down one’s life that we’ll truly find the life for which we’ve been created. This is the gospel! It’s not republican, with it’s idolization of the individuals and the free market. Neither is it democratic, with it’s idolization of the state as the ultimate source of provision and security, as source that’s proven itself over and over to be enslaving rather than empowering. It’s wholly other.
So how do politicians, sworn to further the interests of the state, live our their commitment to this “wholly other” kingdom? The answer will always be the same: not very well.
President Obama talked about his faith yesterday in a backyard event in New Mexico. There was nothing new in what he said there, as I’d read The Faith of Barack Obama back in 2008 before the election. It was a good book because it cataloged the faith journeys of four people: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Bush, and John McCain. The differences were stark: George W. came to faith because his personal life was spinning out of control, and so he prayed to receive Christ as his personal savior. President Obama and Hillary Clinton both came to their faith in Christ because of their exposure to poverty and their understanding that Jesus’ kingdom message was invitation for people to step outside of personal preoccupations and into God’s story, a story which is bigger than personal peace and prosperity, a story which has to do with being a blessing.
So who’s really converted? I can’t tell you, because only God knows. I can tell that Jesus’ call to follow Him by serving others and breaking down dividing walls was like the call to which Obama and Clinton responded. Paul’s articulation of the gospel resonated with Bush. Paul’s words about sin hearken back to Jesus’ words about being born again. All of their testimonies have the potential of authenticity. Both facets of the gospel (stepping into God’s story, and the need for personal transformation) are needed if the gospel is to be real.
But these conversion stories don’t mean they’ll embody the kingdom and heart of Christ when they take office. This is because the political right and left both fall woefully short of God’s kingdom ethic; this should come as no surprise to any of us, because God’s reign isn’t about capitalism, free-markets, bank bailouts, social programs, or arguments about taxation. God’s reign is about laying down our lives in service–in particular ways. It’s providing water in Africa; it’s freeing women from sexual slavery in Ghana; it’s serving the poor and those on the margins in significant ways, so that they’re empowered and enabled to rise out of their bondage; it’s helping people see their need for personal transformation; it’s moving people towards reconciliation and forgiveness, so that people stop playing the victim card their whole lives, and so that perpetrators can be healed too.
When tin-voiced Sarah Palin says, “How’s that hope-y, change-y thing working for you?” my anger isn’t that she’s trashing Obama. I bailed on having party loyalties a while ago. My anger is that she, like the one she’s shooting at, implies that her party’s got it – that if we’ll just cut taxes, and drill for oil in the Arctic, we’ll be a powerful nation, and everyone (both individuals and companies) will rise up to become responsible, benevolent entities so that finally, the hope we’re longing for will be realized, as we sip our tea and celebrate our greatness.
Maybe we should realize that Christians who begin their journey with a personal born-again experience will be drawn more towards the individualized call to personal responsibility found the Republican party, while those initiated to the gospel by serving in a housing project will be drawn to the Democrats. That’s all fine. Let’s just realize that, however we vote, we’re not voting for someone who’ll usher in God’s reign.
Making that reign visible, until He comes, isn’t the responsibility of either party – it’s the responsibility of God’s people, the church. We’ll do it, not be a lust to power, but by washing feet.
I welcome your thoughts.