Obama Faith – The Problem of Two Kingdoms

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.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • sp

    You may be less mad when you hear Palin say things like that, if it was less accurate. She says it, and people clap, because they get it. They get that what she’s saying, because the world is more on the precipice now than 2 years ago. The US, certainly…but the world as well.

    What major figure-heads on either the left or the right don’t think their “party’s got it”?

    As you say, we’re not dealing with the Kingdom of God here…so a certain amount of pointing fingers and mudslinging should be expected in the political arena, however incredulous I may feel about it.

    In their minds, they’re all selling “truth”. Good of you to not be a buyer of it. I’m not either.

  • Lute

    Your thoughts are excatly where my theology has brought me lately. Thank God. It feels so good to be out from under the weight of the party I used to fight harder for than God Himself.

  • Ben Hirschl

    I need look no further than my own life to realize that “coming to Christ” is not the end of the struggle, it is the beginning. I am a businessman, not a politician. I can easily fantasize that my conversion means I no longer miss the mark in many ways every day, that my opinion is now even more correct and that you are obviously in need of some further work. Until I “work out my salvation with fear and trembling” in every area of my life, but particularly in relationship with other people, I will remain a self important wind bag just like I accuse politicians as a group to be.

  • http://suzannetownsend.blogspot.com Suzanne

    I really appreciate the comments that have been left so far! How great it is to be able to dialogue about political issues without finding our identity in a party. Thanks, everyone, for reminding me it is possible to speak about politics, no matter our differences, with kindness and courtesy. Thanks for the reminder that our identity as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom should determine how we speak about politics, and not our political party that should determine how we speak about Christ’s kingdom.

  • http://www.faithandvictory.com Matt Krachunis

    Nice take- my friend Kyle attends your church and pointed me to your blog- I wrote on the same subject today- a little different take, but part of the discussion. http://www.faithandvictory.com/blog.htm

  • http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com joeywahoo

    Well said. What if a fraction of the zeal and energy expended by Americans on political squabbling were devoted to furthering the Kingdom of God? We could change the world.

    • fluger

      Amen.

    • Kristi

      Not to mention a fraction of the money spent!

  • Per

    As always, well said (written) again.

    In regards to the first comment by SP and the quote “They get that what she’s (‘tin voiced’ Palin) saying, because the world is more on the precipice now than 2 years ago. The US, certainly…but the world as well.” This is a tricky quote and I’m tempted to call foul on this.

    There’s two ways to think of this and I’m not sure what ‘SP’ is intending because I don’t know his/her political point of view. However, in both circumstances, I think this is hypocritical and runs counter the point of your message. Certain parties and people of an ideology like to espouse that the world is more on a precipice now because their political, social, or environmental point of views are not currently in office. For instance, I thought the world was SO much more on a precipice when our government was torturing and invading countries for no substantiated reasons and we were letting our oil lobby write our energy policy (This clearly gives you a sense of my political leanings). Now, the economy is BAD (its been bad before) but its slowly rebounding. The deficit is LARGE, but its not significantly larger than it was 2 years ago despite your feelings on TARP or the ARRA. Global warming has not been addressed in any global or meaningful way, but hope is not lost. In spite of our political points of view, God is in control of everything and he’s not the US’s exclusive god. No where in the Bible does God say he will pour out blessings on the U.S. of A. And I don’t believe Ronnie Reagen, Pat Buchanan, or Bill Clinton were authors of the Gospel. Just because our political party, tax system, or size of government isn’t in place doesn’t mean that our world or even this great country is on the precipice. Let’s have some perspective and quite thinking we’re in mortal danger from the other parties agenda or that its a battle of good versus evil.

    I come out of reading the blog post even more thankful that there is a separation of Church and State. The church is not infallible and the Bible does not provide enough guidance on what to do with all our social, economic, or environmental issues (e.g., If gays can’t marry, then why should agnostic or atheists be able to marry if its truly to meet God’s definition of marriage? Is it a sin for the wealthy to pay less in taxes given what the Gospel says about giving to the poor? Should only the middle class be asked to give to Caesar what is his? If Global Warming and other environmental tragedies are rampant, why aren’t Christian’s taking more of a vocal leadership role since it’s God’s creation that’s being destroyed?). Likewise, the political sphere is entirely and wholly different from God’s kingdom and it shouldn’t be judged according to all our various interpretations of God’s message. Politicians should bring their religion with them into the job as it shapes them, provides them a sense of direction, and gives them that Hallmark-saying ‘moral compass.’ However, their interpretation should not exclusively guide their policies because the two different worlds can not nor should not be the same. Furthermore, politics should not be used as a form of evangelism by forcing Christianity on non- or other-believers.

    My two cents.

  • Ken

    All things considered here I guess I would have to place myself in the category of a sinful man in need of a savior that answered God’s call to repentance. I came to Him to be saved. I didn’t come because I saw a fallen and broken world that I had a burden to save or even help to save. It would seem to me that anyone that comes for that reason has come to help God in His mission on earth. That reasoning or background would make me suspect of their motives. Scripture is pretty clear that no man seeks after God. He seeks after us. Further it says we will know true believers by the fruit of their lives. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self control… perhaps we can add humility? Anyone see any difficulty in attaching those characteristics to our current national leadership? I doubt the believers in the powers of this world will see it, but the utter arrogance and overindulgence of our nation’s leadership does not bring to mind any fruit of the Spirit of God with which I am familiar.

    Does one side or the other have it right? Not likely. Is one side closer to being right? Probably just as unlikely. Is our nation headed in the right direction? Undoubtedly not. As believers however we can rest confident that no matter the outcome of this nation, God’s purpose will be fulfilled. ALL nations fall. What an exciting time in history to witness the beginning of the end for our own. For that is the only certainty here. How long will it take? What will come next? God’s Kingdom one way or the other.

  • http://www.harpcat.wordpress.com Joe Echevarria

    Our Chorus is getting bigger!

    I appreciate this article sooo much!

    Now if we could learn to do more of what Christ calls is to, relative to the talk unaccompanied by action.

    To the success of Christ-likeness! :D

  • Tim Gammell

    I enjoyed your musings on “Essenes,” “Zealots,” “Pharisees,” and “Herodians,” and your even-handed reference to how people’s faith understandings – George W Bush, Barack Obama – can be so different. Likewise, that a Christian perspective on dispersed or centralized governance, militarism, security, material consumption, energy use, etc., is more likely than not be differ from any political party platform – rather our business is about advancing the Kingdom of God

    How unexpected then, and very disappointing, to suddenly have the “tin-voiced Sarah Palin” introduced with such apparent distaste. Is this because she has a higher pitched voice than others, or some sort of Alaskan accent that grates? Some defect that she should overcome? If so, then it would be no different for me to introduce another public figure by saying, “the pasty-faced Mary Landrieu from Louisiana said …,” etc.

    If its about SP’s particular political perspective, and a certainty she expresses, then as another reader has already pointed out, every party thinks its got it. Barack Obama certainly campaigned with the message, “just hang on, we’re coming to the rescue …” with all the certainty he could project.

    The description distracts deeply from the direction of the rest of your article.

    • raincitypastor

      fair enough – thanks for the honest critique!

      • Patti

        Agreed. You lost me with the tin-voiced thing. It rather invalidated some of your other thoughts.

        As an intelligent conservative Christian woman, I am weary of the labels given to women like me. I was a fan of SP long before she came on the national scene and the liberal media created a caricature of her (a la Dan Quayle).

        We tell our children they will be known by the company they keep. GWB met regularly with a group of Christ-centered men to pray, study God’s Word, and be accountable, while our current leader basks in his “annointed one” status. GWB spoke of Jesus Christ being his personal saviour, while BHO and HRC talk of social justice and works.

        Finally, as the mother of biological children and an adopted child, I truly believe that those who condone abortion from their place in national leadership will have much to answer for when they stand before God. While it is derided as the “one issue” conservatives get too hung up on, it is an issue that cuts deep to the heart of individuals and our nation. For believers, there is NO denying that, no matter which side of the aisle you sit on.

  • raincitypastor

    You’re right Patti – sarcasm gets us nowhere. I’m sad though, that the method of delivery invalidates the message for you, but that’s not why I’m responding. I’m responding because the issue of “protecting life” is a great example of the point I’m trying to make.
    1. I depart from my left leaning friends all the time, and stand with you for protecting life in the womb, agreeing that we’ll have much for which to answer, both individual politicians and we as a nation, who elect them.

    2. I depart from my right leaning friends who believe that, left unchecked by any oversight or accountability, (other than outlawing abortion), these new lives that we protected in the womb will be just fine, and if they’re not – too bad. The libertarianism that would protect life in the womb only to then abandon it to market forces once born is, in my opinion equally unconscionable.

    Who has the moral high ground here? Again I say it: Jesus – and those who, by living sacrificially and generously in his name, are blessing the world with a touch of His life.

    thanks for your thoughts

  • http://www.gtrcontracting.com graham

    Tin voiced? Does the phrase “hollow as a tin can” sound familiar?…. not the pitch of the feminine gender, put down your guns. And hollow it is. Her comment reveals the lunacy this post is addressing…. she insults the hope of change that so many in our nation felt and still feel …. in the hopes of rallying a political base to entrust her, or her party, with the same hope of change… Its just hollow political device.

  • Lamont

    Perhaps most X-tians aren’t familiar w/Two Kingdoms Theology, because their Sheppard’s have not had a drama, or shown them a film reel about it, Dobson doesn’t teach it, or, it wasn’t part of their congregations “Prayer of Jabez for Purpose Driven People Left behind Victorious Christian yoga class?” A recent poll showed that Atheists new more about the Bible then Roman Catholics (like that ‘s shocking), and many Christians have a disdain for doctrine, and then sit around scratching their… heads, wondering why Johnny became an Atheist, after God didn’t restore their amputated leg, or bring their dead baby back to life when they (actually happened) put the child on ice and went to a Benny Hinn crusade, or some other phony faith healer from the Trinity Blaspheme network?
    My Sunday school class is currently going through this very topic/Doctrine, and I’ve found it fascinating. I’ve recently purchased a book by David Platt called: “Radical! Taking Your Faith Back From The American Dream. http://tgcreviews.com/reviews/radical-taking-back-your-faith-from-the-american-dream/
    I know that I’ve got unbiblical thinking and practices that stem from growing up in this culture. (who doesn’t?)
    The only thing that grates on me about Sarah Palin is her wimpy Christianity. Not that she doesn’t put forth a Godly walk for all to see, that’s one reason why I like her, and other (I truly believe) people literally hate her, (and GWB) policy’s aside! It’s her biblical ignorance and lack-luster defense of Christianity (and others in The Faith who do likewise) when confronted by unbelievers, especially in the media.
    One more thisng please. i know you like to use the phrase “Step in to Gods story,” but I find it a nebulas term For instance, name something in all of creation that isn’t in Gods story!
    Thank you!
    Good post.


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